Fred Couples makes it all seem so effortless. But as Couples' family tragedies and chronic back pain have proven, appearances can be deceiving
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.
They must be resilient.
Yeah. I'm not [in Santa Barbara], so I don't know, but I think Thais [was] bright enough to be with these kids and at a certain point, take them aside and say, "I've got to get you going in a different way." I'm guessing. No one tells me. It's like a secret up there. I've just waited. My time will come where I can see them or I can't, but it can't be any fun for anybody. I was 34 years old when my mom passed away and I was like, Are you kidding me?
She also died of breast cancer, right?
And pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer, and then she was just ... gone.
And your dad?
He died of leukemia. He lived two years after my mom passed away. He was pretty healthy, but after my mom died he stopped taking his medicine and just kind of.... We got him a condo and my sister and her husband lived with him, and they tried to push him but he just kind of slowly went.
Were you officially divorced from Thais when she died?
We never got divorced. [Long pause.] You know, it was not a problem. It really wasn't. I think what happened was, she had a vision of what should happen and I guess I didn't disagree but I didn't like it. And then as time went on a little bit, I accepted it and she got to stay in the house and live as long as she could live and I didn't have a huge argument with her. Getting divorced would be strictly about money. She was going to get money. She didn't need any more. What she needed was to stay where she was and she was able to do that. Basically I did it through my lawyers because I never spoke to her. I said, "I don't really care. I'm lucky enough to play golf, I have a house in the desert. She can stay up there as long as she wants."
Will you ever get married again?
No. I really thought she was great. We just hit a few things, and I learned a lot from her. There's no reason you couldn't be around a woman a long time, but I'm not choosing to get married again. I've done it twice — that's enough. Now I'm really hoping, knock wood, I can play on this Champions Tour.
Do you live in a modest place now?
I live in a great house at the Palms [in Palm Desert, Calif.]. It's a Spanish, adobe-style house. The only bad thing is it's right on the 15th tee, a par-3, maybe 50 feet away. I can see everyone's eyes when I'm out in the pool. I couldn't have the kids yelling and screaming when we first moved there. Oliver and GiGi would invite friends over and I'd say, "Okay, someone's on the tee. Every seven minutes we've got to be quiet!" They would laugh.
Is it lonely living by yourself? It's just you, right?
Yeah, it's just me. I have a girlfriend who lives in Redondo Beach. She comes out quite a bit. When I met her last year it was the second half of the year, and with the Presidents Cup thing, she's going, "Wow, this takes a lot of time." She's good about it. She said, "I'll step back for a while."
Perhaps the Champions Tour can be your family.
Yeah. Jay Haas loves it, Tom Purtzer loves it. I can't believe I'm going to be the youngest cat out there.
If you're healthy, you could dominate those old guys.
Well, I watch those guys, and they play incredible golf and they putt really well. I know it's not easy. I'm not stupid. I mean, Nick Price, one of our great players, has not won out there. My goal is to win. My goal out here [on the PGA Tour] was to win, but that's not realistic anymore.
How many tournaments have you missed because of your back?
Important ones? I missed Augusta one time, I missed the PGA, a couple of British Opens. I've probably missed five or six majors and 15 to 20 other tournaments.
When did your back start to become a significant problem?
It was at Doral [in 1994]. I was on the range with my teacher Paul Marchand, and I hit a shot and it was like a bomb went off. I just stood crooked. I went in [a Tour therapy truck] and lay down. I'll never forget it, I said, "No, I can play." I rolled over and put my foot down and the minute it hit the floor my back went out again, just shooting pain. There was no way. They got me into my hotel room and I stayed in there, and Tuesday I was able to straighten up and fly home. I took three, three and a half months off and tried to work on it.
It seems like you'd be a lock for the Hall of Fame without the back issues.
What I'd like to be a lock for is feeling better. It's like a toothache every day.
Do you take anything for it?
I've been living on Celebrex my whole life. Now I've stopped that and I take two Aleve in the morning and one before I hit the sack. I feel like they help, but am I going to take 900 of these things a year?
Would you like to follow the Jay Haas model of playing the PGA Tour into your 50s?
I want to play this year and the beginning of next year, the West Coast, and then I don't really want to play anymore out here. I'll still play. I love to play. I turn 50 in October, and my first [Champions Tour] event is after the Presidents Cup. I just think there comes a time.
You criticized Rory Sabbatini for skipping out early from Tiger's off-season event in December 2007, calling on him to donate his last-place winnings. (Sabbatini did.) Do you feel the young guys need guidance once in a while?
Guys would die to be playing in the thing, and he left a day early to go on a vacation. I have no hard feelings toward Rory; he might have them toward me. If I was 30, I wouldn't say a word, but being 48 I felt like I could speak up, not to harm Rory Sabbatini but to say, "Hey, we all say we've got a gravy train here. Money's gone up because of Tiger and the way he's played. But you shouldn't really do that." I think [Chris] DiMarco didn't finish at Augusta one year — he was missing the cut — and he has said it was the biggest mistake he ever made. I made many mistakes on the course. I've sworn before, tossed a club.
Who set you straight?
I spent a week with Tom Watson. And Ray Floyd has always helped me golf-wise. Watson, I was probably 27, 28, and he said, "Come to Kansas City sometime." I got there and we didn't play much golf. I learned that he did everything real quick. He went and practiced real hard, but it wasn't like he'd make a day of it. I could go to the Palms or Madison Club in the Desert, get there at 9, hit a couple chips, go in and have a protein shake, go back out, hit some wedges and 9s and 8s, and the next thing you know it's 2 o'clock and I haven't done much more than what some other guy could do in an hour and a half.
What did you take away from the week with Watson?
He's fast and precise. He's observant on the course, he's ready and when it's his turn to hit, he hits. I can't be that way, but it helped me be a little bit less the way I am. We went hunting, and when it was time to hunt, we'd get the shells ready and we'd go. I'm the type of person who goes whenever I happen to get up, but obviously to hunt you get up early in the morning. To fish, you fish at the right time. I learned a little bit.
I also took a Ram driver of his wife's and turned it into a 3-wood. It became my go-to club. Any time I got on a tight hole I could hit it 270. It must have been when I was maybe 30, 31. I won L.A., Bay Hill, Augusta, Memphis, the B.C. Open, played in the Ryder Cup with this thing. I used it for three or four years and then it cracked. They tried to make me another one but it didn't work out. Guys would look at this thing and go, 'Yuck. You use that?' I'd go, 'Yeah, I kill it!' I could hit it off the ground, too.
You once said that after a round on Tour you often look for the quickest exit route. As Presidents Cup captain, will you be more of a people person?
When I tap in on the 18th hole, I look around and, it's not to be rude, but I just like to find the easiest way to get away from the course. It's not to avoid signing autographs. I sign, some days I do better than others — today I didn't sign more than about 10. I made that comment because it's my way of saying, [other athletes] finish and they go into a locker room. We finish and we're free game, just walking around. I need time to think. I mean, I birdied 18 today, I'm in a great mood, but when you three-putt, it's a different story.
Given your easygoing style, will you have the capacity, if needed, to scare your guys to get their attention?
No. What I'll be able to do easily is rap with them, whether Kenny Perry at 48 makes the team or Anthony Kim at 23 makes the team. They'll know me, and I think they'll have a lot of respect for me.