LOS ANGELES – Despite a bad back that hurts when he stoops over a short iron, Fred Couples navigated around his favorite tour course without a bogey Friday for a 5-under 66 that gave him the early lead in the Northern Trust Open.
It helped that he knocked in an eagle putt of nearly 100 feet on his opening hole, along with a pair of 30-foot birdie putts. But even for a 51-year-old well past his prime, he was carried along by a languid swing and his love for Riviera.
“I feel like I can play this course blindfolded,” Couples said.
Some of his peers couldn’t believe what they saw.
“He played like he was my age,” said 25-year-old Anthony Kim, who was paired with Couples and was nine shots behind. “He was loose, swinging hard. He hit some quality shots, some aggressive shots. It doesn’t hurt that he’s won here a couple of times. He just knows what he’s doing out here.”
Couples first played Riviera three years before Kim was born. He won in 1990 and 1992, back when his hair was brown, not mostly gray, and when he didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to stretch out his back so he could make it to the first tee.
The affection from the gallery hasn’t changed.
From the other side of the par-5 first green, Couples rapped a putt and watched it roll some 100 feet toward the cup and drop for an eagle. The cheer was loud enough for players still on the practice range to look up.
One player jokingly said, “Couples just made a 10-footer for par.”
Paul Casey, who had a 67 and was four shots back, played in the group behind Couples. Asked how it felt to trail a 51-year-old who can barely bend over to tie his shoes, Casey started laughing.
“Every time I looked ahead, he’s stretching his back, his hand is on his hip,” Casey said. “We all know Freddie. He looks like he doesn’t care. He looks like he’s in pain. He could be on any score. And the fact he’s on 8 under is brilliant.”
Couples was at 8-under 134 heading into what could be a soggy weekend. The rain began to fall late in the afternoon as half of the field was trying to cope with tougher conditions.
J.B. Holmes was tied for the lead until a double bogey on the last hole gave him a 69.
Phil Mickelson struggled with his irons on his way to a 70 that put him seven shots behind, although not terribly worried.
“I’m not pleased being in the position where I’m at, but it could be a lot worse,” Mickelson said. “And I should be within striking distance if I can go out and shoot some hot round tomorrow.”
That he would be trying to catch up to Couples was surprising given his age and his health. Casey, however, said course knowledge and good vibes only go so far.
“I don’t care how well he knows this course, and he probably knows it as well as the members,” Casey said. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t hit the golf ball where you need to.”
Such is his affection for Riviera that Couples didn’t think twice about playing this week – even though he is the defending champion at the Champions Tour event in Naples, Fla.
“I don’t think anyone is mad. Besides Augusta, it’s my favorite spot,” Couples said. “I don’t think it’s a slap in the face if they just look where I live and my schedule and how I play here. It would take two seconds to figure it out.”
Couples not only has two wins at Riviera, he has four top 10s in the last decade and nearly had a chance to win two years ago until he butchered a 9-iron into the 18th with a chance to put pressure on Mickelson.
He was 49, and that figured to be his last chance to win on tour.
Yet here is again, twisting and stretching, taking left-handed baseball swings with his putter while trying to keep loose. The hardest part for Couples after his round was climbing the 100-foot hill toward the clubhouse to sign his card.
When the tour asked him to visit The Golf Channel’s booth, Couples said, “Can’t do it.”
“I’m ready for a nap,” he said.
He was up at 4 a.m. to stretch and get treatment on what he called a “back machine.” It was still dark when he got to the practice range, and he kept to his routine in which he only hits long clubs – the driver, 5-wood and hybrids – because to bend over a short iron hurts. He’d rather wait until the shot counts to do that.
“I don’t consider this warming up,” Couples said. “I just think it’s waiting for my tee time to come.”
And he came out swinging, with the long eagle putt on No. 1, a 35-foot birdie putt on the ninth, a 30-footer on the 15th and a series of scary putts in the 5-foot range for pars. He has gone 32 holes without a bogey at Riviera.
For two rounds, he looks as young as ever. But that only goes so far.
He went to see “The Social Network,” but only because it starred Justin Timberlake. Couples still doesn’t know what Facebook is all about. Remember, it was only two years ago that he started sending text messages (he received one after his round from Tiger Woods).
As for Twitter? Uh, no.
“If I did Twitter, would I tell people that I’m heading home and then going to eat at California Pizza Kitchen? Is that what you do? Or do you actually tweet information?” he said. “Well, what information do I have for my 500,000 followers? I’m 51. I live in the desert. They all know that already.
“If you guys write well enough, they’ll know that I’m in good shape going into tomorrow. I don’t need to tweet anybody.”