AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s 12:03 p.m., and Fred Couples is in a hurry.
He’s walking from Augusta National’s driving range toward the first tee, where he has a 12:10 tee time. Suddenly, a cart whips around the corner, green-blazered man behind the wheel. Couples doesn’t break stride but gives an enthusiastic, “I-see-you” point in the direction of the driver. It’s the chairman of Augusta National, Fred Ridley.
The only problem is, Freddie has no time for Fred. He gestures toward the first hole. “I’ve gotta go to the first tee,” he says. Ridley’s expression shifts; he turns instantly deferential.
“Oh, right! I’m so sorry, Freddie. Good luck!”
Who else could get the chairman of Augusta to apologize — at his own tournament? Couples chuckles sheepishly as he walked away, muttering about how it was probably poor form to blow off the chairman.
Then again, even as chairmen have changed, one role at Augusta has been cemented for years: Fred Couples is the mayor of Augusta National. The 59-year-old has been logging top 20s here since the early 80s. He’d missed the cut just once in his last eight starts here. In all, he’s made 30 cuts at his favorite golf tournament in the world. And of course, he won in 1992, a career-defining week for the Seattle native. The guy should dictate the terms of his own tee times.
But because he’s 59, and because he’s had a bad back for longer than playing partner Si Woo Kim has been alive, the questions have started: Are we nearing the end of Couples at the Masters?
The whispers began last year, when he could hardly prepare at all for the event. “I don’t know how it’s going to work, going to Augusta without putting or chipping,” he said in advance. His driver was so short in the practice round that Tiger Woods made fun of him. “It was a long golf course for Fred,” he said. No matter. Couples made the cut and finished 38th, bettering more than half the competitors at the exclusive field.
But this year, after an opening-round 78, shock followed Couples to the driving range on Day 2. “He’s what — six over? He always does well here,” one man whispered. Couples has made irrational believers of us all. Again, the guy has played exactly one non-Masters major championship since 2009, but every spring he emerges at Augusta, reborn. Couples loves the Masters. And the Masters loves him right back.
A core of Freddie Faithful set up shop in the bleachers behind the driving range as he began preparations nearly 90 minutes before his midday Friday tee time. It was hard to tell how hard he was swinging as he warmed up — 50 percent? Eighty percent? But that languid takeaway, that extra turn, that club drop ever so slightly to the inside, and most of all that perfect rhythm — it all felt familiar.
Couples’ longtime instructor Paul Marchand stood with him, talking him through swings but mostly just talking. “He’s never going to be a guy where I’ll be talking through specific positions right before a round,” Marchand told GOLF.com. “He’s just such a rhythm guy, and he’s always been that way.”
Marchand was insistent on something else, too: this is far from “it” for Couples. His back is actually better this week than many others, and he was able to practice more in the lead-up to the event than he had last year. Marchand said something else, too: Couples was going to do everything he could on Friday to make that cut.
“Look, he’s gonna give it his best effort,” Marchand said. “That you can count on.”
Couples delivered on that promise. After his run-in with Ridley (“I think the chairman understood,” Marchand said with a laugh), Couples loped through the players’ parking lot, and along the end of Magnolia Lane and through the clubhouse door and past the Eisenhower Tree and down toward the first tee, where he joined playing partners Kim and J.B. Holmes. Whether through adrenaline or just muscle memory, the lash Couples took off No. 1 was far better than anything he’d done on the range — though the rhythm was the same.
What followed was a valiant charge at the cut line. Knowing he needed to steal three shots back from par, Couples birdied Nos. 3 and 9 and turned at five over for the event. He bogeyed 12, but birdied 13. And he hit a wedge close at No. 15, injecting hope into the bleachers behind the green. But that putt slid just low.
Couples’ final stand came at No. 16. He stared down the 170-yard shot, took his trademark stance — way open — and positively striped one, dead at the pin, landing just short and rolling out to six feet. But that money-making rhythm escaped him on his putt, which skated past the right edge.
He did well to save par at No. 17, pouring in a lengthy putt to stay at five over. But then the siren sounded, suspending play as thunderstorms threatened. Couples strode up the 18th fairway to take shelter in the clubhouse. Minutes later, he was told that play would resume — so he walked back down the 18th fairway. One of golf’s most distinctive walks got extra display.
From the front-left greenside bunker at 18, Couples delivered one final highlight for this year’s Augusta faithful. Though Couples could hardly see the pin, he splashed it out of the bunker, ran it across the green and just past the cup before settling some five feet away.
The crowds had largely dispersed during the rain delay, but a core group had re-formed the amphitheater around the 18th green. The rain was just starting again as Couples strode up to his putt, wasting no time, and poured it in the center.
The place exploded; the Mayor of Augusta was going out on top. But Fred Couples does not celebrate missed cuts at the Masters. He tipped his cap, and doled out a few fist bumps, but largely let the applause wash right over him. After signing his card, Couples slipped past the media and out to the Mercedes that awaited. Less than a minute after he’d signed for a Friday 71, he had left the property.
No matter. He’ll be back.
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