AUGUSTA, Ga. When your personal half-century mark has come and gone, your long game might be as good as ever. (See: Couples, Fred.) Your ability to manage your game might be better than ever. (See: Couples, Fred.) But your finesse game, short putting and downhill chipping, most particularly, will not be what they once were. (See: Couples, Fred.) Galling, but true. In the history of golf, nobody has ever become a better chipper and putter after the age of 50. (See: Couples, Fred; Watson, Tom; Nicklaus, Jack; your grandmother, et al.)
On Thursday at the Masters, Fred had it all going on and enjoyed a 66, low man of the day and his career-low at Augusta. On Friday, Fred had it all going on except the short putting and the chipping, and he signed for an ordinary 75. In the Super Senior division, Watson, age 60, followed his Thursday 67 with a Friday 74. Shooting scores of par or better for four straight days at Augusta National is a young man's game. That's why golfers still stand in awe of Nicklaus's victory here in 1986, when he was 46. Of the four major championships, the Masters is the hardest one for an old guy to win. The putting and chipping requirements are just too demanding.
That doesn't mean that Watson and especially Couples can't shoot good scores on Saturday, when the course is likely to play extremely hard. The point here is that four straight days are too much. For Fred, the beginning of the end of Friday's round came at 16, the shortish par 3. The hole was on the extreme right side of the green. Fred did all of his customary and uniquely cool things: the various tugs on the shoulders of his shirt, rubbing down the grip to get its tackiness just right, going to the extreme left side of the tee, so that the pine-bough marker was between his feet and the ball. He played a veteran's shot, smack-dab in the middle of the green. He lagged to six feet. Then, cruelly, came the par putt he had to make. You've seen this move before: the short, fast backswing followed by a roll that never really had a chance. Bogey.
If you've been following Couples for a long time, you know his confidence comes and goes with stunning speed, and the short walk to the 17th tee did not give him much time to regroup. His tee shot there was way left. The recovery shot, at which he excels, was a thing of beauty. The downhill birdie putt was only slightly too hard. The five-foot par putt was like the par putt on 16. Another short, fast backswing. Another bogey.
The flashback to the '06 Masters, when, had it not been for poor short putting, he might have beaten Phil Mickelson. The flashback to the '08 Masters, when, had it not been for the short putt he missed on the 36th hole, he would have become the first player to make the cut in 24 consecutive Masters. Instead, Couples shares the cut-streak record with Gary Player.
On to 18 for Fred, left hand in the small of his back, massaging the constant throb. He smashed his drive, 20 yards past Sergio Garcia's shot. A flush strike on the second. (Nobody, except Tiger Woods, hits as many shots flush as Couples.) The ball finished 15 feet over the green, in an almost shaggy lie, at least by Augusta National standards. The hole was in the far back of the green. The shot that Couples was looking at was difficult with any club, 15 uphill feet followed by 15 downhill feet. In his chipping-and-flopping prime, Fred almost surely would have hit a high, soft one from that spot. There was grass under the ball, lots of it. But he elected for the more conservative play: putter. His ball didn't reach the green. He lagged the next one down, tapped in and called it a day. The finish was bogey, bogey, bogey.
Trying to get up-and-down from over the 18th green on Sunday at last year's British Open, Watson, you may recall, did the same thing. He went with putter. He hit the club that he was least likely to screw up with. The ensuing shot was pretty mediocre, even though Nicklaus told him later he made the correct play. The eight-footer to win the British Open never had a chance. You know what happened in the playoff. Nobody ever gets better at chipping and putting after 50. Paging Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson, Mike Weir: Enjoy it while you can.
When Watson shot that Thursday 67, he putted like a wild man. When Watson shot 74, he putted more like a 60-year-old golfer. A couple of loose chips. A poor bunker shot on 18, when the head's getting tired and the legs are, too, leading to a closing bogey. Watson and Couples are both at three-under par, five shots back. Earlier this year in Hawaii, Watson nipped Couples in a senior event. Then Couples won the next three Champions events. Now, those two will battle it out for low geezer. Maybe more.
"I'd like to have a chance to win," Watson said at the halfway mark. Watson never overstates anything. For years now, he has talked his way into thinking he has no chance to do anything at the Masters. He hadn't made the cut here since 2002, only twice in the last 14 attempts. Last year's British Open changed things, and so did the first two rounds at this year's Masters. But the fact is that Watson got up-and-down five times on Thursday, and not once on Friday. Twenty or 30 years ago, it's hard to imagine he ever had a round where he didn't have at least one up-and-down.
Couples's disappointment was more profound. He came off the course on Friday with his back aching and his putter failing him. "As soon as I get home and lay down I'll be fine," he said, "but right now I'm tired and pissed off."
An Augusta National member led him away from the reporters' corral.
"We're done," the member said. "We're done," Fred repeated.
But only for now.