Couples turns back the clock to take the lead at Bay Hill

March 14, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Fred Couples doesn’t walk, he glides.

There is more salt than pepper in the color of his hair, perhaps the only evidence that Couples is 48 and started his rookie season on the PGA Tour two weeks after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. He blends style with power, and appears to be so unflappable that even when he was confronted with a tough shot Thursday, he studied his options as if gazing at a priceless piece of art.

“He just makes it look so easy,” J.J. Henry said after a 5-under 65, tying Couples for the lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Tiger Woods knows better.

Woods finished a pedestrian round of even-par 70, hardly what anyone expected of a guy who has not lost since September, when he saw Couples’ name atop the leaderboard. They have played three times together in the Presidents Cup, and they have competed against each other in the final pairing of other tournaments.

“He’s a lot more tense than people think,” Woods said. “You see how he walks, his mannerisms. But below the surface, it’s raging pretty good.”

In an opening round all about resurgence, no one stood out quite like Couples.

He played only two tournaments last year because of back problems, which were serious enough that he contemplated life without golf. He was appointed U.S. captain of the Presidents Cup earlier this month, a subtle reminder that his time has passed. Yet he looked better than ever under warm sunshine, with four birdies on his opening six holes and hanging on for a share of the lead.

“This doesn’t make me the guy to beat,” Couples said. “If I can play like that, it makes it a lot easier. When you birdie four out of the first six holes, there’s not much that can bother you.”

It was his best score at Bay Hill since a 63 in 1992, the year he won this tournament and was No. 1 in the world.

Woods is the world’s No. 1 player now, having won his last five official events, four on the PGA Tour. It sure didn’t look that way after a birdie on the opening hole. Woods missed one green with a pitching wedge, another green with a sand wedge, and 70 was his worst start at a tournament since the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, which also was the last time he lost.

He didn’t make a lot of putts, and Woods attributed that to the each green having a different speed.

But he took some of the blame.

“You had to make adjustments on the fly,” he said. “It would have helped if I hit more greens. I never gave myself a chance to make putts. I missed two greens with a pitching wedge and a sand wedge. I don’t ever do that.”

Couples couldn’t miss.

He took only 23 putts, and he only time he got in trouble off the tee, he managed a dazzling escape. Surrounded by trees, he stood for the longest time in a quiet gaze, looking at the top of a 20-foot tree some 20 yards in front of him, to the right toward some bunkers, back to the tree tops, not a trace of concern on his face.

He held an 8-iron, twice wiping the grip.

It looked like indecision, and there was more thought that went into the shot that anyone might have guessed.

“I took 10 minutes to hit it, but I kept trying to visualize just getting over the tree – not where I got it way up over it, so high and not far enough,” he said. “I think it clipped a leaf, or clipped something. I smoked it, and it was a yard from being in the water.”

From there, he chipped to 8 feet and made par, all the while showing as much emotion as someone bagging groceries.

“Today is a good round on a very, very tough course,” Couples said. “And that’s kind of what I got out of it.”

Couples and Henry, who played without a bogey on a Bay Hill course with shoddy greens, had a one-shot lead over former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, defending champion Lucas Glover, Lee Westwood and Lucas Glover.

Henry has made only two cuts and hasn’t seriously been in contention this year, although he didn’t get down on himself. That itself was challenging because he has never shot better than 71 in three previous trips to Bay Hill.

“I feel like I’ve been close,” he said. “And today, finally, everything clicked.”

Lehman last won in Phoenix more than eight years ago, but he hasn’t given up.

He had good friend Dennis Trixler, a former player who served as Lehman’s chef at the Ryder Cup, spend three days with him in Arizona to figure out his swing. Turns out he was dropping his head.

“The ability to play good golf is always there no matter how old you are,” said Lehman, who at 49 is a year away from playing in that land of 54-hole events and no cuts called the Champions Tour.

Glover also had been spinning his wheels, nothing better than a tie for 22nd at Riviera in six starts. He was beating himself up, when one of his coaches – Morris Pickens – almost took care of that.

“I was a sourpuss on the course,” Glover said. “I was being hard on myself. When a guy who’s 10 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter gets in your face, you listen. He told me he wouldn’t let his kids behave like that.”

Sure enough, he kept his calm after back-to-back bogeys and bounced back with a 66.


He looks calm all the time, never more than when his back feels good and the birdies are falling.