LOS ANGELES – The ache in his back never really goes away.
Since the day Fred Couples crumpled in pain on the driving range before the final round of the Doral-Ryder Open in 1994, his back’s never been the same.
“Fred never uses it as an excuse, but I’ll tell you flat out, his back’s worse than people know,” says Joe LaCava, Couples’ long-time caddie. “A lot of people have nagging injuries, but his back’s bad.”
That’s why LaCava loved the text message Couples fired off to him when Couples decided to play the Northern Trust Open this week.
“In 21 years working with the guy, he’s probably told me three times that he’s playing well,” LaCava said. “He texts me last week, and he says `I’m playing LA. I feel like I’m playing well. I really want to play.’ So I was kind of excited to come out here, and obviously he is playing well.”
Couples is plagued this week by the same ache that’s been bothering his back for 17 years, but it’s rarely hurt so good.
With a bogey-free 5-under-par 66 Friday, Couples shot to the top of the leaderboard at the Northern Trust Open. At 51, he’s bidding to win this event for the third time.
LaCava knows what Couples can do at Riviera with a lot of confidence in his game.
That’s why LaCava wasn’t surprised Couples passed on defending his title in Naples on the Champions Tour this week. He knows what Riviera means to Couples and how much he’d like to win here again.
“I think they all understand,” Couples said of his Champions Tour colleagues. “This is my favorite place to play. The people in Naples, I don’t think they are upset. I’m sure they want me there, but I would rather be here. Even if I miss the cut, I’d still rather be here. This is a very special spot to me, and I love playing here.”
Couples got off to a fast start Friday with an eagle at the first hole. He made a 94-foot putt.
“It’s the longest putt I’ve ever seen anyone hit, let alone make,” said Anthony Kim, who played alongside Couples.
Couples gave Kim a clinic on how to play Riviera.
“He was playing like he was my age,” said Kim, whose nine shots behind Couples. “He’s young in his mind.”
Couples said he feels good over most shots. Surprisingly, his back doesn’t bother him when he takes a big swing with his driver. It bothers him when he’s over a short iron or pitching wedge.
“He knows he has to bend over more, and he knows he’s going to take a divot,” LaCava said.
Midway through the second round, Couples was seventh in the field in driving distance, averaging 298 yards a wallop.
Mostly, Couples’ back bothers him when he’s just standing around waiting to hit a shot or away from the course. It also affects his sleep.
“Standing here,” Couples said while fidgeting in front of a microphone after his round, “it feels like a toothache. By 8 tonight, you’re just ready to hit somebody.”
Couples is planning some special new treatment on Monday, but he’s being mysterious about the nature of it.
Surely, though, a victory this weekend will feel like healing medicine.
“I feel like I can play this course blindfolded,” Couples said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot a good round . . . I’ve played 150 rounds on this course, probably. I don’t think anyone in this field has played as many rounds as I have. So that’s an advantage for me.”
Actually, Couples has now played 101 round in this event at Riviera, but that is more than anyone else in the field. Corey Pavin’s played 96 here.
Couples won four times on the Champions Tour last year, and he said the confidence gained winning there helps him this week. He’s seeking his 16th PGA Tour title, his first since the 2003 Shell Houston Open. If he wins at Riviera, he won’t be the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open when he was 52 years and 10 months old. Still, winning would do a lot for Couples as he prepares for the Masters in seven weeks. Couples won his only major in ’92 at Augusta National but showed last year he can still be a factor there by finishing sixth.
If Couples wins this week, anything will seem possible going to Augusta National, a place he finds as enchanting as Riviera.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell