What I've Learned: Fred Couples on how to get the most out of golf and your gameand have a great time doing it
I've played golf professionally for about 30 years now, and the game has given me a lot. The opportunity to play many of the world's best courses and compete against the finest players in the most prestigious tournaments is something I'll always be thankful for. But when it comes down to it, the greatest thing about my career in golf has been the fun. I've made a lot of friends in the game over the years, and I still enjoy seeing them. It's true that at times, like when my back was acting up or I wasn't playing well, traveling the Tour could seem like work. But in the end I still enjoy the game and I especially love winning.
I've been fortunate to have had quite a bit of success in my brief Champions Tour career, and I'm looking forward to continuing to play for several more years, provided my back stays healthy. In the following pages you'll find my thoughts on a number of subjects related to my golf career. Hopefully some of my experiences and my advice will help you get as much fun out of the game as I have.
Augusta is different than other places that I've played a lot, and love, like Riviera or Colonial. At some courses I feel I can come in playing somewhat poorly and still score well. At Augusta, if you're not hitting the ball well, you can really get in trouble.
Regardless of how I'm playing, I never have a game plan when I go to the Masters. If I hit a good drive on a par 5, I try to attack, and if I don't then I figure something out. My approach to the course is a lot like my gameit's all feel. If I step up to the first tee and hit a good drive I feel confident. My main objective then is putting.
At this year's Masters, I probably had more fun than any other year, except for maybe '92, when I won. It's my favorite event and I was obviously playing extremely well. The 66 I shot in the first round was the lowest score I've ever had there, and it was pretty easy. The whole week was easy for me in terms of my game. I was drawing the ball off the tee and driving it past everyone I played with. I think I picked up 10 or 15 yards because I was hitting it so well. I was also very accurate, which is a great combination. There were only a couple of times when I hit the ball better at Augusta than this year, like in '06 when I lost to Phil on Sunday. That day I felt I played better than most of the other guys, but I just didn't putt very well. This year I putted extremely well, especially on Thursday. As a result I hung in there through most of the tournament. Being in contention at the Masters on Sunday is the most fun for me. I'd trade a lot of other wins to have that opportunity again.
Hitting full shots is very natural and easy for me, but putting is more of an art. I see the line from behind the ball and then hope I see the same line when I get over the ball. When I do, I tend to putt well. Sometimes I get over the ball and I don't see the same thing I saw from behind the ball and it really throws me off. The result is often a quick or wishy-washy stroke. You definitely need to feel confident in your read if you're going to make putts consistently. Short putts give me some trouble because they tend to be more dependent on mechanics than feel. It's funny, but my head tends to stay still on most shots except two- and three-footers, where it's critical. When I'm struggling with the short ones I think, "Keep your head still." The worst thing you can do is move your body or head on a two-footer because it takes almost nothing to open or close the clubface just a tiny bit, which then leads to a miss.
I've been playing with the belly putter for quite a while now, and it's definitely helped my back. I first tried it on a whim and putted incredibly well for a few days in a row at my home course. Then I took it out to a tournament in Las Vegas and shot a couple of rounds in the mid-60s, and that was pretty much it. I wanted to try something different and I thought it would be a good change. I also thought it would help me stay competitive longer.
I don't really practice putting muchif I do 10 minutes a week that's a lot. Even before a round I just go to the putting green and hit a few 40-footers to get a feel for the speed. I can't bend over and putt for an extended period of time and then get up on the tee and make a good swing, so I don't. But I don't think it hurts me that much.
If you struggle with putting don't be afraid to try something new. Early in my career, if a guy went cross-handed we all assumed it was because he couldn't putt anymore. Then one day I tried it and it felt really good and my stroke actually looked better, too. It just seemed more stable than the normal method. Now there's the claw and a bunch of other methods guys are using, and they can all work. If something feels good to you, never hesitate to give it a try.
POWER AND TEMPO
I think a lot of amateurs hold the club too tight. The tighter you hold anything, the slower you'll be. You really need to be soft and supple to create clubhead speed and power. When I'm at address, you could walk up and take the club out of my hands easily. That's how softly I hold it. And when I reach impact my right hand feels like it's almost off the club, which gives me more of a powerful hit through the ball than if I was choking the grip. I wouldn't necessarily teach anyone to do that, but it's the right kind of feel.
If you want to improve your power you need to work on your swingthat's the best way to learn to swing harder. When your swing gets better so will your confidence, and that's just as important as mechanics. When I'm finished practicing and I'm fully warmed up, I'll go and hit eight or 10 drives as hard as I can. When I nail a bunch in a row it builds my confidence.
My tempo goes along with my relaxed approach to my grip and setup. When I take the club away I just think about making a good backswing. I definitely don't muscle up in preparation for a big drive, I just try to stay relaxed. Then the split second when I'm coming into impact I try to hit it as hard as possible. It might not look like I'm putting a lot of effort into it, but I amit's just that my body is free of tension. After that, I let the club go completely and it naturally folds into a relaxed finish position. Because my balance is good my finish almost always feels comfortable.
My friend and coach Paul Marchand tells a story about when we were in college at the University of Houston. As he tells it, Jim Nantz, Paul, and I went to hit balls one day, and after a half hour Paul noticed I was gone. He says he found me taking a nap in the car. I don't know if I remember it like that exactly, but the truth is I liked to play, not practice. We used to go to Memorial Park [a local muni], and Paul would hit balls for hours. But I couldn't do it. I would just go for a walk or something to get away for a bit. I could never sit in one spot on a driving range and bang balls.
Now that I'm older I actually practice more than I play, but not so much on a driving range. I prefer to hit drives off an actual tee and then hit shots down the fairway. I think it's closer to the real thing and it helps me focus. When I worked with Paul for periods during my career I would never just go in for a two-hour lesson. I liked to take two or three days and work on stuff and then hit some balls. If you're working with a pro I recommend you try longer sessions if possible. It can take a while to understand what it is you're trying to do. I think it's important to hit a fair number of practice shots, but not with a driver every time. That's probably the most common mistake among amateurs. You'll groove your swing much better with a mid-iron than a driver. If you can hit your 5- or 6-iron well, you should be able to drive it well. Pace plays a big role in golf, and swinging a long club like a driver makes it hard to develop consistent tempo.
FADE VS. DRAW
When I played my best I was hitting a very hard fade. I could aim left and just swing. Although my body was aiming left my eyes were on the target and that's where the ball would fly. Once in a while I would hit a pull, but mostly the ball would go where I was looking and then cut. If I over-cut it the ball might end up in the edge of the rough or the right side of the green, but it rarely got into big trouble. I hit a lot of greens with that swing because it was easy for me and the ball landed softly. Paul was my coach for many of those years and he loved the way I hit that shot, so I never really tried to change it. After I hurt my back [in 1994], I stopped working with a full-time coach for a few years and practiced on my own. I got away from trying to go after it so hard and started drawing the ball more because it was easier on my body. At that time I was living in the desert and I started working with Butch Harmon, who was nearby in Las Vegas. Some people think Butch got me drawing the ball, but really that was what I was doing when we started working together.
On teaching: "Everybody teaches a system, but I just try to shoot where I'm aiming. I play by sight and by feel, not with technical thoughts."
On wealth: "I didn't have money growing up. Now I have a lot, and it's not that big of a deal to me. It's kind of irrelevant."
On amateurs: "The biggest mistake I see in pro-ams is misclubbing. My amateur partners often hit the ball decently, but either they don't take enough club on their approach shots, or they hit driver when they shouldn't. It costs them a lot of strokes."
On aging: "The Champions Tour is a great spot for me. I can still really play, and I know I can compete on the regular Tour if I want, but I have a better chance to win playing against my old friends than against the young guys."