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Golf needs Couples, as a captain and as a player

Photo: Lenny Ignelzi/AP

Fred Couples has played on five Presidents Cup teams.

Tarpon Springs, Fla. — The big news about Fred Couples is supposed to be his new job as captain of next year's Presidents Cup team. But the really big news is that he's playing this week in the PODS Championship, his fifth tournament in ten weeks. For a guy who played only two regular-season tournaments in 2007, the FBR in February and the Masters in April, five out of ten seems like an Iron Man performance.

And that's good news. Golf has missed Fred, who has made fewer appearances as his back problems have worsened and his interest in the game has waned. He's always been a one-of-the-guys player, and slightly uncomfortable when he's seen as more than that. He didn't care for the spotlight that came with being No. 1 in the world in 1992, when he won the Masters and a few other tournaments. Not coincidentally, he didn't stay No. 1 for very long. He'd be happy to play a little golf, win every now and then and hang out in the locker room with his buddies, a cool drink, a big-screen TV and a remote. In an era when some golfers view the fans and the media as a nuisance, Fred has always remained free of pretensions.

He proved to be a pretty shrewd observer of the game when he did a short stint as an analyst with ABC years ago. He knows the game and its players better than his seeming nonchalance would imply. Writers love him because he's funny, self-deprecating and a quote machine in the mold of Yogi Berra. His most famous line was his explanation for why he avoided answering the phone: "Because there might be someone on the other end."

On Tuesday, he was asked if part of what makes Tiger Woods so good was his remarkable mental focus. "Tiger is the best player because he's the best player," Couples said. Laughing, he added, "What a quote!"

His penchant for rambling answers and unfinished sentences doesn't usually matter. You know what he meant to say, and that's good enough. He's doing better with the phone, by the way. As the new Presidents Cup captain, he's never been in such demand, and he's getting 15 to 20 phone messages a day. "As long as it's just tour players calling me, it's OK," said Couples. Still, he admitted that he tends to listen to about half of a message before skipping to the next one. Hey, who can't relate to that?

The best thing about Fred may be that he still thinks golf is fun, and that golf should be fun. That's why, despite his apparent lack of interest in administrative duties, he'll be a good Presidents Cup captain. He'll have Michael Jordan, a hall-of-fame guy's guy, at Harding Park in some kind of team capacity. He's also hoping to have comedian Robin Williams in the team room. "He lives like three minutes from the course," Couples said Tuesday. "I had no idea."

Couples explained that team events can get boring because of all the official functions — photo shoots, meet-and-greets, banquets, etc. He thought Williams would be an ideal guy to have hanging around. "It's not like he's going to tell Davis Love to cut a 7-iron on the 14th hole or anything," Couples said.

He has already appointed an assistant captain, but he's not ready to make the announcement. He admitted that he had two men on his list, and that Love, his good friend, was one of them. Draw your own conclusion.

It's safe to say that no previous Presidents Cup captain, from Hale Irwin to Arnold Palmer to Ken Venturi to Jack Nicklaus, will have as much fun as Couples will. In fact, he's already enjoying his role and the congratulations he's received. "It's like I just won a tournament," he said.

This Presidents Cup appointment probably means he won't be the next Ryder Cup captain; it's unlikely anyone would hold both jobs at the same time. Having either honor once, Couples said, would be enough for him.

He's 48 and he can still play. You may remember his duel with Phil Mickelson at the 2006 Masters. Or his takedown of Vijay Singh in singles at the Presidents Cup in '05. He tied for eighth last month at Torrey Pines (which will host the U.S. Open in June), and he still ranks sixth in driving distance and 31st in greens in regulation.

His back is feeling better. You could see a difference last winter in those silly season events. He was second in the Skins Game, taking home $325,000. He tried some nontraditional therapy over the winter — that's a story in itself, best told another time — and he said Tuesday that he feels pretty good. Good enough, he hopes, to play 18 tournaments this year, and good enough to play well again at the Masters, where he has never missed a cut. If he can stay healthy, a relative term given the status of his back, you can't help but think that he may have more to accomplish as a golfer.

If he stays healthy. This week at Innisbrook is another small step in that direction for him. Cross your fingers. Golf needs Fred.

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