As his caddie during the early years, I knew Fred Couples before he became a rock star. How lucky am I?
When it comes to Fred Couples and caddies, Joe LaCava is the man. They had more than 20 years together, including Fred’s win at the 1992 Masters. I was there in Fred’s Wonder Bread years, in the early- and mid-’80s. I was on his bag for his first Tour victory, the ’83 Kemper Open. I was there for his first big win, the ’84 Players Championship. I don’t know about now, but then it was the fifth-most-important tournament in the world. Why? Because the winner got a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour.
Fred won it at 24. In those days, 24 was young. You’re 24, you’re healthy and talented, and you have job security? You’re gonna make some money. In our four years together I might have pulled some good clubs for him, but Fred did more for me than I ever did for him. You work for Fred Couples, your life changes. For the better. I was there at the start of a Hall of Fame career, and I’m damn proud of it.
Fred has the gift of simplicity. See ball, hit ball. Par-4? Driver. Par-5? Driver. All the time? No. But most of the time.
He sees courses like nobody else. At Augusta in ’84, playing his second shot into 7 one day, he tells me he’s going to hit a cut shot at “the guy in the white visor.” I see a hundred guys with white visors. Fred sees one.
Three months later, Fred was playing at the Old Course in the British Open. This was the year Tom Watson didn’t win and Seve Ballesteros did. A well-seasoned St. Andrews caddie is watching Fred in a practice round and says to him, “You nae play the Old Course from the left!” And Fred says, “You nae see somebody hit eight-iron from 165.”
He plays his own way and swings his own way. One of his things is that the backswing is overrated. He can hit beautiful shots with every kind of backswing you could imagine—and some you can’t.
It’s easy to say now, but I knew he’d win at Augusta someday. What’s surprising to me is that he hasn’t won an Open on the Old Course. Maybe he still will. Age doesn’t matter much in that tournament, and the Open is back at St. Andrews in 2015. I was caddying for Greg Norman at Royal Birkdale in 2008 when he made a run at the Open title at age 53. Nothing Fred does surprises me. He shows every year at Augusta how good his golf still is, especially on the best courses in the world. What he needs is four good rounds.
He’s always been inspired by classic courses. He had good taste in clubs too. During my time with him he had the most beautiful Toney Penna driver, black-painted persimmon with a red epoxy insert. That club belongs in the Hall of Fame. He had a Wilson Staff sand wedge with the red dot on the sole of the club. And he had two beautiful putters, a Ping Anser and a Bulls Eye. He also had about the purest stroke you ever saw. It was so short nothing could go wrong with it.
A Tour player needs a driver he loves, a sand wedge he won’t wear out and a putter he wants to take to bed. That was especially true 30 years ago, when clubs varied more. Fred had the Big Three. He was as good with those three clubs as anybody in the game.
You know about Fred and good courses. He won last year’s Senior British Open at Turnberry, one of the best courses in the world. He loves Augusta National and the Old Course and Riviera. Congressional, where he won the Kemper, is an old-school gem. As for the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, where he’s won twice: It’s the best layout money can buy. It had one major thing going for it, back in our day. It was tough. The purer you hit it, the harder you want the course to be, and Fred was pure.
Even a Hall of Fame career needs a first win. Fred’s first was borderline comedy. On that Sunday at Kemper, he was playing with T.C. Chen and Scott Simpson. Not one of them shot better than 76. I never saw marshals work so hard. Every shot was in the gallery. So many things went wrong that the rules officials were camped out with our group. We finished about 90 minutes behind the group in front of us. At one point, CBS is showing a beauty shot of some ducks swimming in a pond on 18 and Ben Wright says something like, “Those chickies were mere eggs at the start of this round.”
Barry Jaeckel had downed a handful of Michelobs by the time Fred limped in. Jake never suspected he’d get into a playoff, except he did, a five-man job, courtesy of Fred’s 77. Seventy-seven! Why’d Fred blow up? Because he was nervous, that’s why. Of course he was nervous. They all get nervous. Even Fred. You’re trying to win on Tour for the first time, it’s nerve-racking. You’re trying to win anytime, it’s hard on the nerves. Fred won on the second playoff hole, with a kick-in birdie.
Something changed on that Sunday at Kemper. Congressional is outside Washington, D.C., and the galleries were huge. They loved him. The spotlight had found him, whether he wanted it or not. He’s been in it ever since.
The biggest thing about that Kemper win was that he started thinking about himself differently. Up until then he was sort of going around the country, watching ball games and playing golf. After Kemper, he was going around the country, watching ball games, playing golf and knowing he could win. He realized that winning wasn’t everything, but it sure was fun. He was 23. Guys didn’t win at 23 back then. It took years to learn how to play the Tour.
His second Tour win came about nine months later, in the spring of 1984, at what we called TPC. It was the Players Championship, played on the Stadium course of the Tournament Players Club. Jerry Pate won the first Players there, in ’82. Fred played that year and missed the cut. Hal Sutton won the second one, in ’83. Fred played that year and missed the cut. This was when the modern Tour was starting to take off.
The wind was blowing most of the week in ’84. On the range Fred was teeing up three-woods about 21?2 inches high and smashing these shots that went like 25 stories high and landed about 10 feet in front of him. Fred likes to amuse himself.
First round, Fred shoots 71 when the winds were gusting to 45 mph, on a day when there were 64 balls in the water on 17. That 71, in those conditions, was by far the best round he’d ever played there. He comes out the next day, makes a bogey on 1, gives the putter a little fling and says, “That’s to show you that yesterday was a fluke.” He then played the next 16 holes in 10 under. He made a bogey on the last for 64, a course record then. In 40 years on Tour, I’d say it has to be one of the best rounds I’ve ever seen.
On Sunday, he’s in the last group. He’s paired with Watson and Ballesteros. Walking to the 1st tee, Fred says to me, “We’re gonna stay out of these guys’ way.” He doesn’t want a lot of chitchat with them. Not with two of the biggest names in the game.
The 1st-tee announcer is introducing Seve and Watson, naming all their British Opens and Masters wins and all that. And then he introduces Fred, winner of the Kemper Open. Fred was in the big time.
He didn’t hit a lot of fairways on that Sunday, but he made everything. He got to 17 with a two-shot lead. It’s 125 yards, wind in. He hits eight-iron. It’s kind of a nervous swing and the hit is not flush, but the ball’s dry and he makes his par. He still has the two-shot lead when he comes to 18.
The 18th at the Stadium course is the par-4 with that lake all down the left side. I’m thinking, “Slice drive, slice second to the front edge, three-putt, W.” You don’t want to make bogey on the last, but it’s nice to know you can. Fred slices the drive, hitting one-iron. He has 210 yards to the hole for his second. He takes the seven-iron. Ken Venturi on CBS says, “He’s laying up here!” Fred hits this big flying seven-iron to the front edge. He three putts from there for a one-shot win.
Seve and Watson are congratulating him. It was the only time Fred got close to them all day. Getting a stamp of approval from legends, that was huge. He collected his winner’s check for $144,000. That was huge. He got the exemption for the next 10 years. That iced the cake.
Fred knew I was looking to buy a used car. He says to me, “You can buy yourself a Cadillac now.” I didn’t. I bought a used Dodge from Jack Nicklaus’s caddie and never looked back. Neither did Fred.