Freddie Turns Back the Clock at Memorial


It was almost as if nothing had changed the past dozen years. Freddie was Freddie, and it was inconsequential if he was 32 again, or if he really was 44. Is it really 2004, or had we slipped back to 1992, with Fred Couples winning three times, finishing second a couple of times, and finishing third three times?
Yeah, hes 44 now; yeah, he has a terrible back; yeah, hes a family man now with a wife and two kids; and yeah, the hair is grayer now and hes made use of a variety of belly putters. But he will always be a golfer, and its weeks like last week that make him realize why.
At one of the bigger tournaments of the year ' The Memorial ' with one of the best fields of all, Couples beat everyone save Ernie Els. Whoa! Freddie certainly hasnt been doing this in recent years, last years win at Houston excepted.
If the past decade had been the same as last week, we might have seen this particular Freddie a lot more.
I wish things would have been different, said Couples. His personal life became a tragedy with a divorce and a suicide marring the past decade. He has had so many problems with his back. And frankly, in the middle of it all, he discovered golf wasnt that important when he took on the contented life of California family man.
We all assumed that Fred Couples would just as soon have chosen some other occupation. But he set the record straight in a hurry.
I still love to play, he said, correcting the assumption that this easy-going guy could not wait to get off the golf course for good. He said that last year he was playing well ' remember, he had won Houston ' and then at the Wachovia he had to concede to back problems once again.
It was just a bummer, he said. I mean, I had four holes to go on Friday and I was 8 or 9-under on that golf course. And for the rest of the year, from that point on, I had all kinds of problems.
He was out five weeks, and then he never could regain the lost momentum. Its taken him until now to start to play like Fred Couples again. And if you dont think a week like last week is an unbridled joy to Freddie, then just listen:
I haven't really hit it like this in a long time, he said. It is fun. But this week was special. I was right there four days. I mean, winning Houston was truly a ball, to not have won in a while. But if I can continue to play like this, it will be more fun.
It was 1994 when the back flared up. He was on the driving range at Doral when suddenly something went pop ' and Couples pulled out of all tournaments for three months. He had torn an outer layer of a disc in his lower back, and from that day to this, he has had numerous flare-ups.
The gallery at Columbus was wildly pro-Freddie ' as the crowds are most everywhere. They wildly cheered when he first got into contention Friday, and they were just as histrionic when he played the final round Sunday with Els ' the acknowledged Big Easy. But Couples is almost as big a fan favorite as Tiger Woods.
When Ernie hit his chip on 16 - I mean, I had a 35, 40-footer, but they were going nuts, said Couples, a little taken aback by it all. I mean, they knew what was going on, but they were not really rooting against him, they were just rooting harder for me. Most of his irons were six or eight feet from the hole, but when I did hit one better than he did, obviously it was louder.
And Ernie wasnt offended at all.
You know, he's been playing like that forever, said Els. I love watching him play, as well. He's got a great short game, and he's got a great way of playing the game.
They gave him some serious support out there. I mean, he's such a great player to watch. He's got this slow action, he makes things happen. He's such an exciting player. I mean, look at him today. He holes shots, makes long putts. He's a solid player. The fans just love him.
Couples never knows when the back might go. It generally happens when he least expects it. Many times an act as simple as getting up from a chair will twist the spine in such a way that he is bedridden again. And one thing he has learned in the past decade ' he rarely ever abuses the back by hitting golf balls.
You would think you would slap it out of the rough and twist your back in half, he said. That's never happened. It's usually the dumbest things. And so I walk on eggshells all day long and then I get out of a chair and my back goes out.
I can go out and hit balls, which I'm going to try and go do, and I can get tired and my back can ache, but normally when I'm out of commission, it's goofy, crazy stuff.
So hell continue to play, and the finishes that wind up like The Memorial will bring him great pleasure. And he will continue to cheat the chiropractor as long as he dares. After all, theres nothing that gives him the elation of playing well in a big tournament.
I've gotten a lot of good breaks, conceded Freddie. But as far as having a back issue, if you asked me 15 years from now and I've quit and I can't straighten up, then I'll come back and tell you I should have stopped five years ago.
But I don't think that will - I hope it doesn't happen.
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