Vintage is In Style


Four starts into his new day job as the Champions Tour’s cleanup hitter, Fred Couples has dominated beyond anyone’s realistic expectations. Three victories and a runner-up finish, a 65.33 scoring average –  Couples hasn’t shot higher than a 68 in 12 rounds and is a cumulative 77 under par for those 216 holes. More opportunity, less intensity. The Sultan of Silly Season is stomping all over his senior brethren.
Fred Couples
Fred Couples has collected plenty of hardware on the Champions Tour. (Getty Images)
Perhaps more than any top-tier player since Hale Irwin, Couples reached his 50th birthday with enough game to remain a factor on the PGA Tour. He still hits everything flush, rarely misses an iron shot, and at 298.2 yards per measured drive, has the type of quality length most players wish they had. His ailing back has been an issue since the mid-1990s, but Couples hasn’t missed any lengthy stretches since sitting out most of 2007.

When he’s healthy and playing a golf course that interests him, the guy can compete at the highest level, which is why Couples will tee it up with the big boys this week in Houston, site of his last Tour victory in 2003. The plan is for him to continue dividing his time between the two leagues, but if Geritol Ball almost seems too easy and the grind of the regular tour seems like too much, there is, of course, next week’s gathering at Augusta National.

No question, Fred Couples can win another Masters. A number of things would have to fall in place – warm weather, a rusty Tiger, a limited number of putts in the 3- to 5-foot range – but if Freddie isn’t near the top of the sleeper list you take to the office rotisserie pool, you need to step outside the box and think again. Wishful thinking? Maybe a little. Hallucinating? Absolutely not.

Three of the last six major championships have prominently featured an older guy in the weekend plot: Greg Norman and Tom Watson at the last two British Opens, along with Kenny Perry, who had never come close to contending in eight Masters appearances prior to ’09. Perry’s wobbly homestretch and subsequent playoff loss to Angel Cabrera defied the notion that talent will get you to Sunday and experience will get you to the trophy ceremony, but still, he should have won the tournament at age 48.

Couples has a superb history at Augusta, not only claiming his only major title there in 1992, but piling up nine top-10s and making 23 consecutive cuts, a Masters record he shares with Gary Player. He had excellent chances to win in 1998 and 2006, the second of which died when he three-putted the 14th green from no more than four feet, but overall, it is a place he dearly loves, a layout that fully engrosses his strategic imagination.

John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

That was before he won three consecutive senior events, which definitely counts for something. It doesn’t matter who you’re beating or how you’re beating them — it’s all about the few extra inches of confidence you take to the ballpark. “Fred Couples is going to win the tournament,” Watson said on this week’s ‘Grey Goose 19th Hole.’ He’s winning, he’s shooting scores, he’s putting the eyes out of it.”

Again, let’s not get carried away, but there is a big-picture element to the possibility that Couples will work his way into the weekend mix, at which point his past success and local knowledge become even more crucial. Although his Champions Tour success is no surprise, it is the freshness of the challenge – different venues, a new set of opponents (guys he has known forever), a much greater chance of winning – that has reinvigorated him as a tour pro.

I vividly remember a conversation I had with Freddie in Dallas seven or eight years ago. “The good news is, I’ve played here [TPC at Las Colinas] 50 or 60 times and I know the course better than all these young guys,” he said. “The bad news is, I’ve played here 50 or 60 times and I’m kind of sick of the place.” It was vintage Couples, a verbal snapshot of a guy for whom golf began as a wonderful game, then turned into a business, then became a burden after his back miseries became a source of constant fret.

I’m hoping for more vintage Couples next week. Nobody gets kind of sick of Augusta National. Lots of pretty flowers, yes, but it’s also a great place to stop and smell the competitive fire.