AUGUSTA, Ga. – Life at the top of the leaderboard was sweet and short for Fred Couples at the Masters.
He three-putted 16. He three-putted 17. A misclub on 18 made it three bogeys in a row Friday, and Couples found himself sliding out of contention. A 75 left him at 3 under, five strokes behind early leader Ian Poulter.
“I needed to be at five, six under, to be realistic,” Couples said. “I’m not out of it, but 75 is not a great score.”
The 50-year-old is playing some of his best golf in years, and his 66 on Thursday made him the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the opening round of this tournament. He plays Augusta National as well as anyone – he and Gary Player hold the record with 23 consecutive cuts made – and if there’s one graying guy in the field whom fans would enjoy seeing in another green jacket, it’s him.
But Couples’ creaky back acted up again Thursday night. By the next morning, he was hoping he wouldn’t drop to last.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to play very good at all today,” he said.
The back loosened up, however. He chipped to within 3 feet for a birdie on the par-5 No. 2, moving to 7 under.
“I didn’t feel good, but I got it around,” Couples said.
He couldn’t get the ball to go in the cup fast enough.
Birdie putts on 11, 12 and 13 wouldn’t drop. He had the three-putt on 16. On 17, he actually had a birdie opportunity but knocked the putt 5 feet past the hole and couldn’t make the comeback. Putting wasn’t the problem on 18. He misclubbed his approach shot and wound up flying the green.
“It’s not a whole lot of fun at the moment,” Couples said. “I would have taken a 75 at 9:45 this morning. But I had the capability of shooting much better, and I didn’t.”
Scores didn’t go as low in the afternoon as Couples feared, and another good round like Thursday could have him on the rise again. But he also knows that, at his age and with his back, there’s no margin for error.
Not at the Masters. And certainly not against players like Poulter and Tiger Woods.
“Yesterday was a good day,” Couples said. “Today was not so good.”