AUGUSTA, Ga. – You get the feeling every time Fred Couples steps over a shot, his caddie holds his breath.
Joe LaCava can practically hear vertebrae straining when Couples moves over the ball at the Masters this week.
How bad is Couples’ ailing back?
Asked if he arrives at Augusta National in the mornings wondering whether Couples will show up, LaCava says it’s worse than that. He wonders through a round whether Couples’ back will give out.
“I wonder over every shot,” LaCava said. “He still may not make it over the weekend. I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes just leaning over, it explodes and he’s done.”
“Could I win?” Couples said. “Of course.
“Today was a great round to make it a thrill-seeking Saturday for me.”
But with his age and back working against him, Couples knows the odds are steep.
Couples hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since the 2003 Shell Houston Open. Still, he is dreaming big.
“It would be the biggest upset in golf history,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”
Julius Boros is the oldest winner of a major. He was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968.
With 21-year-old Rory McIlroy leading the Masters, Couples is reminded the challenge ahead every time he looks at the leaderboard. McIlroy was 2 years old when Couples won the Masters.
If Couples pulls the upset . . .
“It might mean everything to him,” LaCava said. “You might never see him again if he wins, but there’s a long way to go.”
LaCava might not be kidding.
Asked how monumental winning would be, Couples said it might launch him into retirement.
“I would be gone,” Couples said.
Just watching Couples make his way around Augusta National can make your back hurt. He looks like he’s doing rehab between shots. The way he is always twisting his torso, pulling a knee to his chest, plopping a leg up on his golf bag, you can see him desperate for relief.
When he's pegging his ball at a tee box, or leaning over to pluck it out of the cup, he looks more like he's 81 than 51.
“It’s been pretty much a toothache,” Couples said.
But over shots, even the short irons that most hurt him, Couples is transformed. He still posses one of the sweetest, smoothest swings in the game.
Walking Augusta National’s fairways, he’s still got that movie star’s saunter, the coolest walk in golf.
He’s still got that winner’s swagger.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibilities,” Tom Watson said of a Couples victory. “It can work. Freddie knows the golf course very well.”
The challenge, Watson hints, will be putting without a young man’s nerve.
“Jack [Nicklaus] said it right,” Watson said. “He said this is a young man's golf course, as far as nerves, on putting. Length has its advantage, though. And it makes some of the par-5s into par-4s. Freddie's got that advantage.”
Steve Stricker will attest to that. He said Couples was blowing drives past him and Luke Donald.
“It would be scary if he were healthy,” Stricker said. “He hit a couple shots where he groaned.”
LaCava was there the day in 1994 when Couples was first stricken with back problems. He watched Couples crumple on the driving range before the Doral-Ryder Open. Couples has battled back pain on and off ever since.
At last week’s Shell Houston Open, Couples looked questionable for the Masters. But he received some injections before the event that were designed to kick in this week. He’s also downing doses of Aleve.
“Here, I would be playing even as a cripple,” Couples said. “I love this place.”
The love affair reaches new heights if Couples makes history slipping on another green jacket on Sunday.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell