AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The halfway leader of the 76th Masters takes pain medication for his back and is eligible for AARP.
Last week in Houston, he all but pronounced his golf game an ancient relic.
Then Fred Couples, age 52, arrived at the humps and hollows of Augusta National Golf Club and started carving drives and pouring in putts. Fred Couples: 1992 Masters champion and resident sandbagger.
Through 36 holes of a wild Masters, Couples shares the lead at five-under-par 139 after a second-round 67 that featured seven birdies and just two bogeys. Tied with Couples is another laid-back soul, Jason Dufner, last year’s runner up at the PGA Championship.
Chasing the leaders, one shot back, is a potpourri of names: Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson.
Phil Mickelson, after a smooth 68, is three shots out of the lead. Tiger Woods, after a brutal 75, is eight shots back. All over the leaderboard, there are major champions playing for legacies and others looking for their first major title, but Couples’s story is especially intriguing.
Last summer, he traveled to Germany for back treatment not approved in the United States. The treatment lasted five days and included injections into his back.
Though Couples won the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions Tour in March, his forays on the PGA Tour have been less than stellar. In February, he missed the cut at the Northern Trust Open at his beloved Riviera. Then last week in Houston, Couples finished tied for 47th after three straight rounds in the 70s.
But no matter the state of his back or his game, Augusta National has always been a personal elixir. And now, he is in the thick of another chase for a second green jacket.
“I’m not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson,” said Couples, dressed in an aqua-green sweater, “but I do know this course.”
Couples loves Augusta National like no place else. The holes fit his eye, and the beauty of the walk seems to put him in an almost meditative state.
Even as he has aged, he has never lost his zest for the Masters or his talent to excel in it. He shares the record for consecutive cuts made, with 23 from 1983-2007. He finished second to Mark O’Meara in 1998 and tied for third behind Mickelson in 2006.
“Can I win?” Couples asked. “I believe I can.”
Playing in difficult, chilly conditions, Couples walked around without a care. Despite an opening bogey and another on No. 6, he shot 33 on the front with three straight birdies on No. 7 through No. 9.
His back nine was clean, with seven pars and two birdies, including on the par-5 15th hole, which he reached in two.
With others melting down around him, Couples kept his head and his swing.
“I don’t feel too much stress,” Couples said. “Now, obviously there’s stress out there, [but] when [I’m] playing here I’m not going to let too many things bother me. It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday.”
Dufner, who nearly won the last major, the PGA Championship last August in Atlanta, carries himself in a similarly calm way, though he might not have as much flair.
“I had some really nice rounds at the PGA,” said Dufner, a former walk-on at Auburn. “It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here. I’ve had some really, really good rounds, and I’m just kind of searching to put four together.”
If Couples and Dufner represented crisp shots and cool demeanors, Woods was the antithesis of both. He didn’t snap a club, but he drop-kicked his pitching wedge after a shoved tee shot on the par-3 16th, where he made bogey from a buried lie in the bunker.
Two weeks after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five shots, Woods has looked lost on the tee boxes at Augusta National. He opened the tournament Thursday with a snap hook into the trees on No. 1 and has been searching for consistency ever since.
Woods speculated that some of the short-game shots he’s been working on with teacher Sean Foley “might have crept into my takeaway on my full swing.”
Woods said of his swing, “It’s not what it was at Bay Hill.”
Woods is left to search. Couples, Dufner and a fascinating leader board are left to dream.