LOS ANGELES – Fred Couples has more gray hair now.
More aches and pains, too.
His distinctive saunter down the fairways is still cool, but he reminds you what time’s doing to his gait the way he uses that long putter like a walking stick as he approaches the greens.
He reminds you the wear and tear the years have brought his body the way he’s always trying to keep that rickety back loose, the way he hoisted his leg up onto the top of his golf bag to stretch at the seventh tee, the way he’s always pulling a knee up to his chest to loosen up his lower back, the way he'll bend over, hands on knees, through his round.
Yes, Couples, 51, is showing his age at the Northern Trust Open, but only between shots.
When he was over the ball in Thursday’s first round, you could swear he was 30 years old again. His swing still mesmerizes. It’s still as powerful as it is effortless. He’s still got one of the sweetest moves in the game. He showed that time and time again with giant drives in his run onto the leaderboard.
Couples loves Riviera Country Club, and it’s loving him back.
With a 3-under-par 68, Couples is one shot off the lead in the suspended first round. His ball striking was so crisp, he could have fared even better. He missed short birdie chances at his 15th and 16th holes.
Couples was paired with Anthony Kim and Bubba Watson, and he made them look like the old men in the group.
Watson shot 76 and then withdrew, citing a pulled or strained oblique muscle. Kim shot 73. They were spraying shots all over the course while Couples gave a clinic on how to attack Rivera in a tournament he’s won twice (1990, ’92).
“I know this course so well,” Couples said.
So well that a rickety back might not stop him from making a run at winning here for a third time.
“I can swing a club, I just can’t sleep,” Couples said of his chronic back trouble. “It’s like the biggest toothache ever, all day long. I’ve had enough, to be quite honest. So I’m going to see if I can do a couple things to take the pain away.”
Couples piqued the interest of media with that strong statement and others like it. He says he has some special treatment lined up beginning Monday, but he refused to elaborate when prodded.
“There’s a couple things that may happen,” Couples said. “It’s pretty drastic.”
Surgery, however, doesn’t sound like one of the options.
“I would say it’s non-evasive,” Couples said.
Whatever Couples has planned, he says it shouldn’t stop him from playing in the Masters in April.
“It’ll be fun for me to do,” Couples said. “It’ll be different. I’m not even going to tell you because I’d have to take a drug test after I do it.”
Couples found a short-term remedy for what’s ailing his back at Riviera. Birdies. He made five of them against two bogeys.
“This is my 30th year I’ve played this tournament,” Couples said.
Couples tied for third here just two years ago. He was fourth at Riviera four years ago. In a five-year run here in the ‘90s, he won twice and finished second twice.
There’s lots of love for “Freddie” at Riviera, with the galleries rooting him at every turn. The fans can’t get close enough to him. After he hit a shot out of the trees at the eighth hole, a woman rushed out and laid a hand on his back. It seemed to spook Couples a little, but not for long. After hitting the shot to 4 feet, he holed the putt for his final birdie.
Couples looked like he was enjoying a chance to show the younger Watson and Kim that he’s still got game.
“It was fun to play with those guys,” he said.
Couples will be looking to extend the fun deep into the weekend, or as long as his rickety back holds up.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell