Couples fearful of a career-ending injury
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida (AP) For the first time in five years, a week in November will go by without any tournament sanctioned by the U.S. PGA Tour.
Not to worry.
The silly season arrives this month when the LG Skins Game celebrates its 25th anniversary and marks the return of Fred Couples to competition.
Couples is the undisputed king of the silly season, a title he doesn't mind as long as it's mentioned in November instead of March. He has earned more money in his career at the Skins Game ($3.9 million, 2.7 million) than the four majors combined ($3.5 million, 2.4 million).
Since 2002, he has played 91 times on the U.S. PGA Tour and earned $6.4 million (4.4 million), then played 14 times when the season was over and collected $3.3 million (2.3 million).
Only this year, the silly season has never been more meaningful to him.
Couples, one of the most popular players on the tour, has been coping with a faulty back for the last 13 years, but this was the first time he wondered if his career might be over.
"I thought it wouldn't be the end of the world," he said. "Playing golf is great, and I've done it for 26 years. But the last three years have been horrible."
Even with a back that could go out at any moment, Couples has managed to play at least 15 times a year (regular season), and five of his 15 victories since he first hurt his back in 1994 have included The Players Championship and the Memorial.
This year was different.
He missed the cut at the FBR Open in Phoenix, noteworthy only because he has made the cut 82 percent of the time in his career.
Warming up for the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, his back went out on the first tee and he got the caddie for his pro-am partner to fill in for him.
He had to withdraw from the Nissan Open, a tournament he had played every year since 1981 and won twice. It was a struggle to get to the Masters, and a minor miracle that he made the cut on the number, but only because the course was so difficult. Couples shot 76-76 and made it to the weekend through the 10-shot rule. He remains the only Masters champion to have never missed the cut.
Stretching, twisting and massaging his back at every turn, he closed with a 71 and tied for 30th.
That was April 8. And that was his last competitive round.
It got so bad that Couples contemplated surgery, and only after he sought more opinions did he decide against it.
"Other years, I've missed some events," he said. "But the last few years, I would go to my knees, I can't move, I'm locked up. I'm somebody you see when they're crunched over. It gets to be a week before you walk around, a week or two to get feeling decent, then practice, then go to Bay Hill and play horrible. It stinks."
It seems odd that no one has seen Couples since the Masters.
Even when he's not contending, he has a presence on the golf course that endears him to fans and players around the world.
Maybe this was just a coincidence, but at the British Open one year, the practice range was divided with European players on the right side and American players on the left. Couples sauntered onto the range and took a spot in the middle of the Europeans, and the chatter and laughter picked up immediately.
"It's been strange not to see him. He's a blast. Rocks are flying when he's around," Justin Leonard said. "But it's not like you can pick up the phone and call him."
That was a reference to when Couples famously said that he doesn't answer the phone because "I get the feeling whenever I do that there will be someone on the other end."
He called last week while driving back from Waco, Texas, where he has been seeing a back specialist.
"He loosened me up and I'm heading back to practice and start playing," Couples said. "You want to talk about the Skins Games? I hope with two weeks of good practice I won't embarrass myself. But I haven't played any golf."
There has been progress, however small. He played a corporate outing at The Olympic Club in August, and as a member-guest at Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, five nine-hole matches over three days.
"This might be my last hurrah," Couples said. "If this doesn't work, I'll set it down and try to not worry about it."
The Skins Game will be played on Nov. 24-25 at the new Celebrity Course at Indian Wells, and Couples will be going up against defending champion Stephen Ames, Masters champion Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich.
This will be the 14th time Couples has played. He has won it five times. And this was almost the first year he turned down the offer, not comfortable with taking the invitation after playing so infrequently.
Now he's thrilled to be there, even if he has no clue what to expect.
"I'm sure I'll slap around a few good shots," he said. "I'm not going to hit fat shots and snap hooks. But I'm a little concerned about trying to hit the right shot. In the Skins Game, there are shots you have to hit it in there 4 feet to have a chance. I don't think I can pull that off. But if I can compete, I'll be OK with that."