I was serious in my pre-tournament analysis when I wrote that Fred Couples can still win at a couple of spots on tour, including the Stadium Course. Couples did nothing to dissuade me from that notion Thursday when he shot a silky 70, two under par, in the opening round.
He made a nice up and down at 18 to save par. That's one part of his game that's never gotten enough attention; he pitches the ball brilliantly. I'd like to see him in a flop-shot contest with Phil and Tiger, as a matter of fact. Fred has a great soft touch around the greens, although his putting stroke is a pale shadow of what it used to be. He can still shoot good scores, though, and he's proving it.
Fred is still a master of the garbled quote -- you know what he meant to say, but it doesn't quite come out right. His best post-rounder was about the Players: "It's the No. 1 tournament we have all year," he said. "The majors would be the only ones above it."
Right, so that would actually make it No. 5.
Fred made the most of his opportunity. He said he wasn't surprised that he played well Thursday, but he was surprised to be in the tournament. He found out late last week, when he was the first alternate to get into the field, that Will MacKenzie had to withdraw due to knee surgery. (Dustin Johnson moved up to first alternate and got in Thursday morning when Masters champion Trevor Immelman felt too ill to tee it up and withdrew.)
"I can promise I wouldn't have been sitting here three days (as alternate) waiting to get in," Couples said after his round. "If I did that and didn't get in, I'd have been miserable for a month. I guess Dustin sat here, and he got in, but this is his first time. This is like my 25th Players."
Fred's improved play this year has been based on his back feling better. The bad news, Fred said, is that his back is beginning to deteriorate. "I'm swinging without too much pain," he said, although he fidgeted as he talked from a podium after the round, frequently stretching his back. "Three months ago, I could sit and get a haircut. I can't sit still for very long now. As long as I don't feel horrible, I can play."
One notable item heading toward the weekend: The greens are extremely firm and fast, which will lead to higher scores unless there's some rain to soften the putting surfaces. How firm are they? "There aren't really any ballmarks," Fred said. "You just bend over to pretend like you're doing something."
(Photo: Phil Coale/AP)