The sports world has its own signs of spring, certain things you can set your calendar to every year: The Final Four. Opening Day. A Fred Couples top 20 at the Masters.
It's been a quarter-century since Couples hoisted the 1992 Masters trophy, but the 58-year-old has looked ageless at Augusta, notching six top-20s in his last seven starts. But this year, Couples says, may be different. GOLF.com's Dylan Dethier caught up with Couples on the pressure he feels to perform at the Masters, his take on Tour fans, Tiger's comeback, his work on Twin Dolphin Golf Club in Los Cabos, and much more. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dylan Dethier: Hey Freddie, thanks for taking the time. Where are you at the moment in terms of Masters preparation?
Fred Couples: I've been in Newport, just relaxing. But I hit balls for the first time yesterday and I'm going to go hit a little later today when it warms up, too – just trying to work my way slowly into this Augusta thing.
You say you're working back into it – when was the last time you hit balls?
I played mid-January in Hawaii at the senior event (Couples finished T6 at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai) and pulled my back out, but I was so frustrated that I kept playing. Then probably six weeks ago I thought it was time for me to go hit a few and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't even hit wedges and I just thought, "Well, this is no fun.'"
I waited a couple weeks, and I thought, "I want to play Toshiba, I want to play Houston, I want to be ready for Augusta," and I would commit and I would try to hit balls and then I would withdraw.
But I'm feeling great getting out of bed every day and moving around, and I went and had a couple shots a week ago. Then I hit yesterday and it felt okay, and the good news is I don't feel horrible today. So I'm going to try it again. But I'm only hitting woods; I haven't hit an iron or putted in two months. So I don't know how that's going to work, going to Augusta without putting or chipping. But you know what? I want to play there. I don't think, knock on wood, that I'll totally embarrass myself because I still feel like it and I'm going to play. I cannot miss this.
You've been spending some time in Mexico. Tell me about your work in Los Cabos at Twin Dolphin Golf Club.
To give a little background, I got this job about 10 years ago and it kind of never got going, but then the Ohana Group came in and took it all over. Part of the big master plan for the community is that there's a Montage Hotel that will be open very soon, and some of their guests can play at the Twin Dolphin Golf Club that Todd Eckenrode and I have designed. We'll have a whole bunch of members, a whole community, and every amenity you could ever want.
Basically, it's unreal. It's spectacular and dramatic. You can see the ocean from every shot except for one, which is a par 3 that goes down into an arroyo, and so when you're down there you're just surrounded by beauty and then when you come back up to the next hole you see the ocean again.
The bunkering is a little different; a lot of the bunkers are right along the arroyo, there's no edge of grass and I like the look of that. The fairways are wide; they're not obnoxiously wide but they're plenty wide and it's a great second shot course with several spectacular tee shots.
Does this course feel like it fits within the Fred Couples design philosophy? Or is a part of that philosophy adapting to what the site gives you?
I had played a little bit in Cabo, so I kind of understood the winds and how a hole should go, but Todd really laid out the whole course beautifully. I don't go there to say, "well, Todd, this hole should go this way," because that's not my cup of tea. My cup of tea is to say, "Hey Dylan, we're standing here with seven irons from 160 yards. What do you see?"
I might see that there's another less obvious shot, where if the pin is on the right and you miss it to the right, it's going to run down and you'll have a tough little pitch. Those are the little idiosyncrasies that I like to focus on. My eye is for when you take a 400-yard par 4, what more can you do to that hole? And I really think we paid a lot of attention to each and every hole.
If you're building a course in tree-lined Seattle, where I grew up, you carve through those trees and do whatever you can. Here, you want to be looking at the ocean on every shot. We've got very few holes that go crossways, and several where when you're headed down the fairway you're just staring at that big beautiful blue water.
What's the timeline like for the course opening?
We're going to be open in November, so I'll be playing golf there come Thanksgiving. Right now there are some great pictures coming in, and I'll head down there a little bit after Augusta. There's also a Montage Hotel that already has reservations for June, when they'll be opening. And there are several homeowners who are waiting for this course to open up, and I'm really looking forward to it. Next year this time I'll be at Twin Dolphin preparing for the Masters.
Let's look forward to Augusta, then. Every year you seem to show up and no matter what's been going on in the lead-up to the tournament you turn the game on for the Masters. Do you feel any extra pressure to live up to the "ageless Fred Couples" Masters standard that you've set?
You're one thousand percent correct. I've barely touched a club in two months – I've hit a few balls but haven't played a hole. So I'm very much on edge and sitting here waiting for Augusta. I'm always antsy and excited, but that's very different than edgy and a little bit nervous, which is what I am.
You want something so bad and I just have played so little golf and I don't want to hurt myself before I get to Augusta, so I'm just babying this thing. I have a little mini plan: I'm going to try to play Thursday and Friday. Then I fly to Augusta Saturday, I'm going a couple days early to make sure I get there and move around.
Then the goal is just to play a course that I absolutely love. I'm hoping that I can hit the ball and that I won't affect the guys I'm playing with. I know I'm going to get an unbelievable pairing, but I have to be semi-healthy or it's going to be a disaster.
But yeah, what a question. I'm nervous as hell because I don't know what's going to happen Thursday on the first tee. I don't know if I'm going to hit a beautiful drive or if I'm going to neck one down the middle and have a wood left, I have no clue.
Given that uncertainty, what are your expectations?
My expectations are to play a couple practice rounds with my buddy Tiger, to relax, to play the par 3 contest and to really play Thursday and Friday. Now, I've never ever said that, but this year a huge goal is to make the cut. That's a huge goal. I mean again, I haven't played a hole since January 20th.
Still, I'm getting these texts like, "Oh, you're gonna knock ‘em dead at Augusta." And I'm like, how the hell am I gonna knock the 5th hole dead when it's 520 yards long and I'm gonna be hitting a wood into the green?
But I'm going to be fine. As long as I'm swinging, I can still get it around Augusta. But this will be a bad – well, not bad – but this will be an indifferent year for me because physically I just won't be ready to go. I'm just showing up hoping to play, but I'm not going to miss it.
So you've got a practice round scheduled with Tiger next week?
He's already played a few times up there, we all know that, but I'm going to play nine holes with him Monday and see how I'm doing and then hopefully play the par 3 with him. I just want to see him, check him out, say hi and watch him play.
What have you thought of his year so far? Obviously you're someone who knows what it's like to try to play with a back issue without knowing how it's going to respond – have you been surprised by just how well Tiger's comeback has gone so far?
Well, yeah. My caddie for over 20 years, Joey (LaCava) caddies for Tiger, and I don't bother Tiger a lot. But I tell him, you know, I'm proud of you, you're playing great. It's fun to watch. I thought it was awesome watching he and Justin Rose trying to catch Rory at Bay Hill, which was impossible.
But basically what I would say is that a bad back is something that's really different. I can tell you easily three or four times that I was leading a tournament and you get the smallest little twitch, bending over picking up a tee or putting a ball and getting it out of the hole – this is me speaking, not for Tiger or anyone else – and all of a sudden you go from trying to beat the three guys you're competing with to just trying to swing. Those are just things you just don't ever really think about, and this is the greatest player of all time.
There was no reason for him to get out there too fast. But he's ready. There's no mediocrity in any of his game, he's rolling and he's playing very, very well.
You're a longtime fan favorite, particularly at Augusta. What do you make of the recent talk about golf's spectators – that they're yelling in backswings, particularly rowdy, or potentially being overserved. Do you feel like that's something that has changed over the years, or are we just hearing about it more?
Some of that is part of life, and when you're playing with Rory, or Tiger, or the Johnsons and Spieths and Thomases of the world, you're going to get the biggest galleries so sometimes they're not paying attention and stuff happens. I don't think the alcoholic beverages are the problem. Maybe it's more getting to what they do at Augusta, where if you make a lot of noise they'll come right up to you and escort you off the course. Do I want to see that happen? No, I don't. But Augusta has been running this forever and they're the best at it.
Maybe some of the tournaments are getting a little loud, because at the Phoenix Open something is okay but then if you go to Palm Beach or Bay Hill or later in the year in Boston or Chicago, it's different. But I think the players know better than I do because they're out there every week.
I think sometimes you see the younger players, like Justin Thomas, who made a comment, he's finding his own way. He's going to be the No. 1 player and deal with this for a long time. Tiger Woods has dealt with it for 20 years, and you get used to it. Every now and then someone will yell in Tiger's backswing and it's no fun at the time but he gets over it very, very fast.
When I was 25, 28 years old, I said a lot of things to people that weren't nice nor rude but just, "Hey, enough is enough, you've been heckling me all day, let's just stop and go pick on someone else," and now if the microphones caught it everyone would think there was something wrong with you.
The hardest thing is that it's a gentleman's game but there's 40,000 people out there and they want to have fun. Look, I don't want anyone yelling in anyone's backswing, but I also want them having the time of their lives because otherwise they're not going to come out there.
In the old days I'd laugh because you sit there and sign – and I wasn't the greatest autograph signer – but you'd sign 20 minutes and then you didn't get one person, and when you left everyone would have a problem with that, but those guys who did get the autograph go home thinking you're a great guy.
Interesting. I was walking alongside Tiger through the autograph line at the Valspar and everyone there was going crazy, begging for his signature. He signs maybe 100 autographs and you're right, the 101st and 102nd people immediately got so mad at him once he walked away.
That's the thing with these crowds: at Valspar, there's 10,000 people on that hole right at 8 o'clock. Same thing at San Diego. And everyone wants to watch him; they want to get a little glimpse.
But let's not beat up on Tiger, or Phil Mickelson, or any of these top players because you can't sign every autograph. The fans that love golf are amazing to me. They drive and park in a lot and take a bus to the golf course and maybe get close to Phil or Tiger three times that day and they go home and they love it, they had a great day. Look, I do the same thing when I go to a basketball game or hockey game and I just check out the stars, my favorites – LeBron, or back in the day Michael. I'd have no idea if Scottie Pippen even made a shot because I wanted to see how Jordan plays the game. One of the most fun things I ever did was being Presidents Cup captain, because for me there was no golf. I just watched how they reacted, what they did in between shots, in between holes, and they're the best in the world because they handle these things better than the other guys.
What are you most excited about coming into Masters week?
I'm most excited about playing. Just flying into Augusta, getting to the course. The first twenty years I said it's my most favorite place in the world. It's a beautiful walk. When I walk to the range, when I walk to the first tee, I'm focused and I see all the people and I've got my partner that I'm playing with, and it's a real challenge but it's also just being in a park; it's the greatest place on earth.
Speaking of the course, there have been some changes made to Augusta and more that are being discussed, but everyone has had a lot of thoughts on the golf ball. What are yours?
I feel like Augusta National and the U.S. Open courses have done a really good job. At Augusta it's good to remember they don't always play the holes from two steps from the back of the new tee boxes. Like the 18th hole from the back tees is so scary now, it's a tunnel. But they move the tee up and so if I hit the same drive four straight days, going uphill so 280, I may have a five-, six-, seven-iron on different days. It's not like every day I'll have a five-iron.
But yes, the ball is going so far. There's enough room at Augusta that it doesn't change any one hole, but maybe if they move the tee on 13 back these long hitters can't go around the corner as easily. The other ones, like the first tee is a straight hole, so if they move the tee back 40 yards it'll still be a straight hole but it'll be a lot harder. I'm okay with changes because they do such a phenomenal job.
Really the hard thing about Augusta is that there are no easy pins. Length makes it difficult when you have a seven-iron instead of a nine-iron, and you're not going to get it as close to that hole. Now you're talking about a 40-footer at Augusta, with the undulations and speed of the greens, and it's no longer oh, easy two-putt. The greens are so tough that you've gotta get it close to every hole.
Is there anybody (besides yourself) who you see making a run at Augusta?
Well, I've got myself penciled in to play. But I don't think it'll be anyone we don't know. You put Tiger, who's playing well, you put Dustin Johnson. Then, what a huge win for Rory McIlroy, and obviously Justin Rose is going to be ready, plus Phil – I think you can pick ten guys and one of those guys will win. Obviously if you take the field someone can win but I think as well as the top players are playing, one of those guys is going to win. That's just my feeling.