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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.

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