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Fred Couples makes it all seem so effortless. But as Couples' family tragedies and chronic back pain have proven, appearances can be deceiving

Fred Couples, May 2009
AP/WideWorld Photos
Couples says he will shy away from the PGA Tour next season.

After Fred Couples signed for a 67 in the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in February, Padraig Harrington put his arm around the American legend as the two climbed the stairs to the locker room. Harrington hadn't fared as well, and he asked what club Couples had hit into the long, par-4 18th hole.

"Seven-iron," Couples said. Then, not wanting to sound boastful about his still-prodigious length, he added: "The wind changed."

Replied the Irishman: "We need to get you on the Champions Tour."

That's our Freddy — longer than ever at 49, and just as cool. But what few people knew at the time was that just two days earlier his estranged wife Thais had lost her battle with breast cancer. She and Couples had separated in 2005, then tried unsuccessfully to reconcile in 2007. Her two children were in the care of family friends in Santa Barbara, Calif., and, according to Couples, they were divided over whether they wanted Fred in their lives.

Drama seems to follow Couples (whose first wife Deborah took her own life in 2001), though you'd never know it from his famously loose demeanor. Five months before his 50th birthday, the 15-time Tour winner discusses his painful personal life, his duties as reigning U.S. Presidents Cup captain, and whether he'll open up a can of Boom-Boom on the Champions Tour.

When was the last time you saw Thais?
I saw her at the end of '07 at Tiger's event. I went back there to help her out. When it comes from me, it sounds one way, when it comes from her, she would say, "Well, he came back and then he left again." And that is correct. That was the hardest thing I ever did, to not stay there after a few months. I lived in the guesthouse for a little while, took care of [my stepchildren] Oliver and GiGi.

That must have been hard on the kids.
The hardest part was I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do with the kids, which was to make decisions for them and do things. That was very difficult because we all knew this day was coming, and if I had stayed all this time now I would be their father. That was my goal, and it didn't work out. So now I'm hoping that Oliver for sure and maybe someday GiGi will want to come and spend time with me. If not, I'm sure I will talk to them. I haven't wanted to push it. I'm not their father. I'm a guy who married their mom.

They won't see you?
GiGi is 18 and wants nothing to do with me, but Oliver, who is 16, in our own way we've kept in touch. We text each other. Hopefully in the near future somebody will give me the okay [to resume contact]. It took me a long time to figure out why and what was going on. I just wish [Thais] was still around. I have no hard feelings. A decision is a decision.

What do you mean?
Her decision was for me not to be able to go up there and see Oliver and be around him for a few days and leave. I think she wanted something different.

The kids are still in Santa Barbara?
Yeah. GiGi is at college in Santa Barbara, and Oliver is in high school. So hopefully that'll turn around. I'm off for a month, and I don't expect them to want to see me. I just know it'll be tough on them.

Who is their caretaker?
Oliver is with a great family up there, some nice people who were taking care of him while Thais was [ill], and GiGi is on her own. She works. She's a pretty smart kid.

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