AUGUSTA, Ga. You can tell that it's Fred Couples from three fairways away, bending at the waist, fidgeting with his shirt, hitching up his slacks with a tug of his belt. Now he is reaching down to sweep away pine needles. Now, he is walking around in a circle.
"It bothers him standing over the ball more than anything," Joe LaCava, Fred's caddie, says of his man's ailing back. "When he walks around, it's fine."
It is Masters week, and 51-year-old Fred Couples is climbing another leaderboard, his smooth swing and balky back along for the ride as always. On Friday, he shot 68 to trail the leader, Rory McIlroy, by five shots. The round was typical Fred. Sky-high drives, including a stinging draw off 10. Feathery irons, including a fade and a birdie on 12.
"He's still got a lot of game," said his playing partner, Steve Stricker. "And he's putting well."
If Fred's game looks unbothered, that is about the only thing. Couples was last in contention in February at Riviera, where he tweaked his back hitting out of the rough on the 7th hole and tumbled down the leader board. Two weeks ago, before the start of the Shell Houston Open, Couples took a steroid shot so his back could "survive these two weeks," LaCava said. While other players warm up by hitting balls on the driving range, Couples stretches and takes Aleve.
"It's very awkward to play golf when it's more painful," Couples said. "I've had a bad back for a long time, [and] the pain is not a whole lot of fun."
But if there is one place where Couples can play through the pain, it is at Augusta National, where he won the Masters in 1992 and contended so many times before.
"He could play here until he was 60 and still do well and compete," LaCava said. "He always gets up for this one."
With past winners like Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw missing the cut, Couples is the best chance for the graying set, something both he and his fans understand. While much of the day's galleries traipsed after Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Couples pulled his own large and vocal group along the Augusta National pines.
"Fred's pre-shot routine looks like the people who imitate his pre-shot routine," someone in his gallery offered.
"You can tell it's Freddie," said another fan, "even when you can't really see him."
When Couples won here in 1992, he held off a 49-year-old Raymond Floyd, who was vying to become the oldest major champion in history.
Now, on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46, it is Couples with the salt-and-pepper hair, trying to make history. When Couples was asked what a second green jacket would mean, he said that it would mean retirement. Then he said it would mean something else.
"It would be the biggest upset in golf history," Couples said.