Putter Fails Couples in Bid for History

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Fred Couples was tied for the lead and chasing Masters history when he stood above a little 4-foot birdie putt at the second hole.
 
He drew the club back, then propelled it forward. The blade tilted ever so slightly before striking the ball. It never had a chance, skidding past the cup on the right side by a good inch or two -- a push, they call it, and a bad one at that.
 
Fred Couples
Fred Couples couldn't make putts when it mattered most Sunday.
A sign of things to come.
 
Time and time again, Couples put himself in position to challenge Jack Nicklaus' 20-year-old record as the oldest champion in Augusta National history. At 46, he had no trouble keeping up with the young guys off the tee. His iron shots were just as accurate. But things went awry when his caddie pulled that putter out of the bag.
 
He began the afternoon just one stroke behind third-round leader Phil Mickelson. Couples was three shots back at the end, shaking his head after a 1-under-par 71 that could have been so much better.
 
All he could do was watch coming up No. 18, a mere spectator in the final group as Mickelson lumbered away with his second green jacket. Couples remains stuck on one, an increasingly distant memory from way back in 1992.
 
Considering his age and bad back, who knows how many more chances he'll get.
 
'I didn't hit the ball like I was 46,' Couples said, sounding optimistic. Then, back to reality. 'I putted like I was 66,' he added.
 
Couples missed at least five putts from inside 10 feet on the icy, dicey greens of Augusta National. He three-putted three times. Despite all his experience on the hallowed course -- this was his 22nd Masters and he's never missed a cut -- he never figured out all the subtleties of the most treacherous short grass in the game.
 
'I felt like at least from tee to green, I was close if not maybe a little better today than these guys,' Couples said. 'But to win this thing, you've got to putt well. I wasn't horrible, but I was just mediocre. I just couldn't get one to go in the hole to get any momentum. That was disappointing. Otherwise, I liked the way I played.'
 
He trailed Mickelson by a mere stroke when they came to Amen Corner. Couples reached the green in two at the tricky 11th, though he still had 40 feet of work to do. He lagged the putt down to within 4 feet and waited for Mickelson to go.
 
The leader had a longer putt and the nagging thoughts of three straight bogeys on that hole. But Mickelson put it right in the hole, then stepped back to watch Couples. His ball caught the left edge, spun all the way around the back of the cup and rolled back toward him.
 
Couples poked at the green with his balky club, as if trying to find something -- anything -- that might have knocked the ball off line. Then he swept it across the grass, knowing all too well who was to blame.
 
'That took a lot of the steam out,' he said.
 
Mickelson had a two-stroke lead and Couples never got any closer, though he wasn't truly done until two holes later -- oddly enough, as he was coming off his best putt of the day, a 15-foot birdie after a great save out of the creek at the par-5 13th.
 
Couples had 4 feet for birdie and a chance to put some heat on the leader, who parred the hole. But he struck his putt much too hard, the ball skidding across the lip of the cup. He had 5 feet coming back -- and missed that one, too.
 
Then, in a rare mea culpa for a golfer, Couples admitted he couldn't handle the pressure of such a big putt. He no longer has the mental edge he did when he subjected himself to the week-to-week heat of the PGA Tour.
 
'I felt like I needed to hit it firm at 14. I was nervous and I got a little jumpy. I hit right through the break,' he said matter-of-factly. 'That was pretty much the ballgame for me.'
 
Couples had to use his putter for nearly half his shots -- 34 out of 71. Only Darren Clarke did worse on the green, putting 37 times on his way to a 77.
 
If Couples had been more accurate with the short stick, he surely would have given himself a lead on the front side. After missing his birdie chance at the second hole, Couples put himself back in position to grab the lead for himself with an uphill 10-footer at No. 3 -- about as easy a chance as one gets on these greens.
 
It missed.
 
Couples reached the green in two at the par-5 eighth, but couldn't take advantage. He misjudged the speed on a 50-footer over a ridge, the ball stopping 12 feet short of the cup. Naturally, it didn't fall, forcing him to settle for a disappointing par.
 
Mickelson made a birdie on that hole and never looked back.
 
'There were just so many good shots on the front nine,' Couples said. 'I could have done a lot to separate myself and get ahead of Phil. Anytime you're ahead, it's a heck of a lot easier. But I never did that. We were tied most of the time.'
 
At the end of a long, long day, Couples was stuck in a five-way tie for third.
 
There wasn't much more to say.
 
'You cannot miss putts,' he said, 'and win tournaments.'
 
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