ATLANTA – Kenny Perry wrinkled a sweaty brow and pondered the question for a pregnant moment. The three-time Presidents Cup and two-time Ryder Cup player has seen it all by way of captains, from the controlled chaos Paul Azinger delivered last fall to the relaxed swansong of Arnold Palmer at the 1996 Presidents Cup, yet there was no way to put a Twitter (140 characters or less) bookend on a Fred Couples’ captaincy.
“I haven’t got a feel for this,” Perry said during last week’s Tour Championship. “I don’t know how he’s going to do it. I think it’s going to be a very loose atmosphere in the clubhouse. I don’t think it’s going to be too much stress.”
Stress-free seems to be the consensus among American players bound for Harding Park and this week’s international grudge match. But then a life choice is no way to continue the American dominance of the biennial matches (the U.S. leads the series 5-1-1), not even with the Tour’s quintessential iconoclast at the switch.
In many ways, Couples has played by the traditional captain’s playbook. His picks (Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan) were safe and all but dovetailed with the current points structure (Glover was 11th while Mahan was 14th), particularly when compared with International captain Greg Norman’s selection of an off-form Adam Scott and a Japanese teen sensation (Ryo Ishikawa) with a limited American resume.
Couples did rock the boat with his selection of NBA great Michael Jordan as an assistant captain, but even that was not groundbreaking considering MJ’s regular appearance in team rooms from The K Club in Ireland to last year at Valhalla.
“As relaxed as (Couples) looks he wants to win that thing. That’s why he has Jordan, someone that great,” Hunter Mahan said.
Most players agree Couples’ captaining style will likely fall somewhere between that of master tactician Azinger, whose psychological profiles and “pods” system produced a spirited victory at last year’s Ryder Cup, and Jack Nicklaus’ laissez-faire style at the 2007 Presidents Cup.
“In between (Azinger and Nicklaus), but probably a little closer to Jack,” said Mahan, who was also a captain’s pick for Nicklaus in 2007 and went 2-3-0. “I don’t know if he will use the ‘pods’ system or not, but I think (Couples) is going to learn from Paul.”
In many ways Couples – an individual enigma much of his career dogged by health issues and a melancholy wrapper that has been confused for decades for indifference or worse, professional detachment – has spent the last 20 years preparing for his current role.
In nine Presidents (four) and Ryder (five) cups, Couples has played for virtually every genre of captain – from the oligarchy of Lanny Wadkins at the 1995 Ryder Cup to Hale Irwin, the taskmaster of the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994. But it may be his two terms playing for Nicklaus that will define Couples’ captaincy.
In 2005 Nicklaus picked a slumping Couples and he delivered a crucial Sunday single’s victory over Vijay Singh to help lift the United States to victory. Seven years earlier in Australia, Couples found himself partnered with Tiger Woods. The duo went 1-1-0, but the United States still suffered its only loss in the matches despite Nicklaus’ best efforts.
“The best thing for me is all the captains (I’ve played for),” Couples said. “I've taken a lot from Ray Floyd and been on Arnold Palmer's team in the Presidents Cup and Jack Nicklaus. I get eight guys where I take a little bit, a little there. Paul Azinger, he did a phenomenal job.”
Unlike Nicklaus in 1998, Couples will enjoy something of an embarrassment of riches in the experience department. At Royal Melbourne, the U.S. side had four rookies, including Woods, while next week there will be only two rookies, and neither Anthony Kim (2-1-1 at last year’s Ryder Cup) nor Sean O’Hair (who finished T-8, fourth and third in his last three starts) can be considered liabilities.
Perhaps the biggest decision a U.S. captain must make is who gets paired with Woods, but at East Lake there seemed to be no shortage of volunteers. O’Hair and Jim Furyk were both mentioned by the world No. 1 as a potential partner and Kim has made it clear he covets the high-profile pairing.
But then, not even the annual pairings prognostication can compare to the unknown that has defined the early stages of a Couples’ captaincy.
“Well, it’s going to be fun,” Woods said. “I can’t wait to listen to him, his speeches and see where they’re going to go. When they start off one way, they never end up there.”
In many ways, the early part of Couples’ captaincy has mirrored that of his career, which spans nearly three decades and includes 15 Tour titles and a Masters green jacket.
What his players do know about their captain is that a “Cliffs Notes” once over of Couples’ career misses the most important points. Lost amid the syrupy swing and cool exterior is the heart of a competitor who, like Azinger before him, has been forced to overcome a series of injuries and delivered on the game’s biggest stages. The difference between the two is that Couples doesn’t wear his passion or articulate that drive as well as Azinger did.
“Freddie to me is kind of aloof, kind of out there,” Perry said. “He’s just a loose cannon. You never know what’s coming out of him.”
The only certainty with this captain curiosity is a desire to win, and that may be all that matters.