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As Easy As T-P-C: Carefree Fred Couples won the Players Championship by cruising to a final-round 64

Fred Couples, 1996 the Players Championship
AP Photo/Hans Deryk
Couples at the Players Championship in 1996

This article first appeared in the April 8, 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated

You get the feeling Fred Couples rolls out of bed looking like Dr. Cliff Truelove on Days of Our Children. He is the sort who could make a Hefty 40-gallon trash bag look like something by After Six. Happy and unhurriable, he is a kind of Winnie the Pooh in cleats, ambling along, life coming easily and in bunches. His swing is slower than the last day of school, holes jump in the way of his golf balls, and money knocks on doors to find him. He is allergic to practice yet has 17 tournament wins worldwide, including a Masters, almost $8 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour, a collection of vintage Mustangs and a traffic-stopping fiance.

Tommy Tolles, on the other hand, looks like a walking antacid commercial. He is only 29, but his worried, coal-black eyes are dark-rimmed, and his eyebrows bend toward his nose like a stock-market plunge. Clothes hang awkwardly on his flagstick body, and he has a barber-school haircut that gives him that just-shaved Anthony Perkins look. He is a citizen of Flat Rock, N.C., where his idea of a perfect day is to "pull a few weeds." He must practice constantly, has won the Nike Ozarks Classic and last year finished 116th on the Tour money list. Before that he spent seven years trying to scrape out a living on the discount tours with a frenetic swing that ends up with his arms wrapped around him like a straitjacket. Generally, if rain is expected, it will fall on Tommy Tolles.

Yet there they were on Sunday, golf's Cary Grant and Arnold Stang, one shot apart with three holes to play at the year's biggest tournament so far, the near-major cashfest known as the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

To Couples, a win would have meant absolutely... nothing. "I could care less about the money [$630,000 for first place, fattest in PGA Tour history] or the exemption [10 years]," he said during the week. That was odd because the 36-year-old Couples had not sniffed the lead of a major or a near-major in more than two years, not since he folded up in back pain on the practice range of the 1994 Doral Open. But then Couples is most blissful when he is away from the spotlight he so dearly hates. Since his great years of 1991 and '92, when he won five Tour events, Couples has changed his home (from West Palm Beach to Dallas), his main squeeze (from Deborah, after an ugly, expensive divorce, to fiance Tawnya Dodds) and his money-list ranking (from No. 1 to No. 63). He became something of a Czar of the Silly Season, which is golf's unofficial, global money grab from November to New Year's Eve, when the real tournaments aren't played. "Nobody practices for those things." he explains. "So they're kind of right up my alley."

But now, with a new doctor who makes house calls — physical therapist Tom Boers flew in from Columbus, Ga., on March 26 and twisted Couples into shape right there in the hotel room — he seemed to be swinging as sweetly as ever. Not that the patient appeared starving for a comeback. "Aren't you hungry for a win?" Couples was asked during the week. He thought for a second, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sure." Not exactly Lust for Life.

To Tolles, on the other hand, a win would have meant just about... everything. A victory would keep him on the Tour until 2006. That he was even close was almost more than his brain could process. On Friday night, after shooting a second-round 64 to take a two-shot lead, he nearly wore out his hotel TV remote, flipping back and forth between ESPN and CNN to see his name on the screen. "I finally had to stop," he said. "My heart was so inflated I thought it was going to explode."

The whole week was an exercise in opposites. Every day some double-Dopplered weatherman predicted torrid rain showers and a Monday finish, but only part of last Thursday's round was postponed. All week the talk was about how the streak of first-time Tour winners would end at three at the Players, what with the finest field of the year entered and Pete Dye's Little Shop of Horrors TPC course lurking. But three of the first four names on the leader board by last Saturday evening — Tolles, David Duval and Michael Bradley — had never appeared on a Tour trophy.

Meanwhile, galactics like Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange and Tom Kite had missed the cut. It was the first time in Norman's 17-year career that he had missed two cuts running, having shot a second-round 76 two weeks ago at Bay Hill. Not very timely, considering Augusta is his next start. "Three strikes and I'm out," he said.

Sunday morning dawned as a very big deal to Tolles, who had gone to bed still holding on to a two-shot lead, then tossed and turned and grew the Butterfly That Ate Jacksonville in his stomach. "I'm not going to lie," he would say later, "I was nervous. I was kind of in a fog, just watching myself playing stupid."

At four shots back Couples was asked before the final round if he would need to shoot another 63, equaling his course record, to win. "Wait, wait," he said. "I don't have any 63s in me."

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