This story first appeared in the April 20, 1992, issue of Sports Illustrated.
One less drop of rain. One more run of the mower. A cup less of fertilizer last fall. One more breath from a nearby butterfly. A blade of grass with weak knees. An eyelash less luck. Any of these things could have cost Fred Couples the Masters. But somehow, some way, Couples’s golf ball hugged the steep slope at Augusta National’s 12th hole, clung to it the way a sock clings to a towel fresh out of a hot dryer. The ball steadfastly refused to fall into the water. Does Maxfli use Velcro?
Lookee here now, there are laws at the Augusta National Golf Club, and they will not be trifled with. No tipping. No women upstairs in the clubhouse locker room. The green jackets never leave the property, except the one belonging to the reigning Masters champ. The azaleas are even told when to blush. And the No. 1 law of the par-3 12th hole, the edict that never gets broken, is that any spheroid that hits the bank in front of the green rolls back into Rae’s Creek, and you’re wearing at least a 5, bucko. No exceptions. It was that way for Gene Sarazen. It was that way for Ben Hogan. It was that way for Tom Weiskopf, who spun five balls into that creek, two of them bank jobs, in the first round in 1980.
A ball has about as much chance of stopping on that bank as a marble does of stopping halfway down a drainpipe. Does not happen. This is where Henry Longhurst often used the term a watery grave. Said Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who has been coming to Augusta since 1950, “In all my years of coming here, I can’t remember one staying on that bank.”
But on Masters Sunday 1992, on the biggest day of Couples’s 32 1/2 years, with Ray Floyd and Corey Pavin breathing hot down his neck and with a brilliant career waiting to bloom, one finally did. “The biggest break, probably, in my life,” said Couples.
Well, why not? Why shouldn’t all the laws of physics come to a halt? Practically every other precept at staid Augusta was folded, stapled and mutilated last week.
For instance, at Augusta no business is allowed to be conducted on club property. Business is not even to be discussed. However, while walking between the 9th and 10th holes during a practice round on April 8, the day before the tournament started, hunky chunk John Daly got a piece of paper stuck in front of his face for the nine millionth time that day. This one, though, wasn’t in search of an autograph. It was an envelope. Daly didn’t grip it, didn’t rip it, didn’t even want to look at it. “Hell,” said Daly, who ended up tied for 19th in his first Masters, “it could have been a love letter.”
It was, sort of. It was a notification that he was being sued for paternity and breach of promise by his ex-girlfriend Bettye Fulford. Dear John: Your hull is sued. Enjoy the hack nine.
At Augusta no running is allowed. But on Saturday, Ian Baker-Finch and Jeff Sluman, who were a twosome that day, literally ran to their shots on the 17th and 18th holes. Double-parked on Magnolia Lane? No. A three-hour rain delay earlier in the day meant that, to finish before play was called for darkness, Baker-Finch and Sluman had to sprint between shots as fast as their little spikes could take them. At one point Sluman was putting out on number 17 as Baker-Finch was madly planting his tee at 18. They made it.
At Augusta no littering is allowed. However, all tournament long Ray Floyd kept leaving balls lying in cups. You would think that, at five months short of 50, he would know better, but he kept dumping balls into Augusta’s holes and then just walking away with that gunslinger strut he has. At 43 Floyd won the U.S. Open and told us it was wonderful because he wasn’t sure when he would ever get another chance at a major. At 47 he nearly cried after losing the 1990 Masters in a playoff to Nick Faldo and told us he wasn’t sure he would get another chance to win a major.
Now here he was on Saturday night, sixth on the PGA Tour money list, winner of the Doral Ryder Open earlier this year, two shots out of the lead at the Masters and making the world wonder how you can Retin-A a golf swing.
“Do you feel 49?” Floyd was asked.
“I don’t know what 49 is supposed to feel like,” he said with a grin as wide as a bunker rake. “I feel good. If you’re supposed to feel real good, then, yeah, I feel 49.”
At Augusta “excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors,” Bobby Jones wrote. Club officials even print Jones’s words on every pairing sheet. Yet each time Couples swung a golf club last week, that dictum took a serious whomping. Couples arrived as the man who could save U.S. golf from the Ians and the Joses and the Bernhards, and the crowd roared with his every fidget. After all, an American hadn’t won the Masters since Lary Mize did so in 1987.
With victories at the L.A. Open and the Nestle Invitational earlier this year, Couples arrived at Augusta as the first American ever to rise to No. 1 in the Sony Rankings, which were instituted in 1986, and as the No. 1 money winner on the Tour this year. What’s more, since last summer’s U.S. Open he had finished among the top six in a chilling 19 of the 24 tournaments he had played and had won five of them. Here, finally, was Chip Hilton in a visor.
All Couples hadn’t done was win a major championship. If he could do that, golf might start thinking about giving him Tom Watson’s old locker. If he never did, he would get thrown in the heap over there with Tom Kite and the rest of the very good players who got off the bus one stop short of greatness.
Could Couples overcome the tainted image — great swing, no drive — that had dogged him for so long? This is a man who once said that he does not answer the telephone at home because “there might be someone on the other end.” When destiny finally called, would Couples let the answering machine get it?
“He’s got one step left,” said Floyd more than once during Masters week, “and that’s to win the major championships. Believe me, he will win major championships.”
Couples looked to be on his way to doing that after shooting 69 and 67 in the first two rounds, which left him one stroke off the lead. “Are you happy with where you stand?” somebody asked Couples during his press conference on Friday night. He gave his usual meandering reply while his wife, Deborah, answered the question out of the corner of her mouth in the back of the room.
“Oh, nooooo,” she said. “We thought we should be 13 strokes ahead by now. Having every single person we’ve seen the last four weeks hollering at Fred, ‘Get the green!’ hasn’t been any pressure on Fred at all. No, sir. We should be miles ahead.”
Couples’s fast start nonetheless prompted his old University of Houston dormmate Jim Nantz, who was anchoring CBS’s Masters telecast, to take Couples aside and say, “Shoot your badge number twice more, and you’ll be wearing the jacket.” The number: 70.
Couples did the badge one better in the third round with a 69, but he was still one shot behind the leader, Australia’s Craig (Popeye, for his forearms) Parry. Not enough, Americans fretted. And, in fact, by the third hole on Sunday, Couples was losing ground. He started like a B player in the Elks Club tournament. He smother-hooked drives oil’ numbers 1 and 2 and had to scramble for a par and a bogey. Meanwhile, Parry, his playing partner, had gone par, birdie. Suddenly, Couples was three strokes behind Parry.
But between number 3 and the Miracle at Rae’s Creek, Couples stomped back. He thumped a nine-iron to within the length of a putter grip on number 3 for a birdie. After a bogey at number 5, he sand-saved par on number 7, dunked a 25-foot no-hoper on 8 for a birdie, curled in an 18-footer for birdie on 9 and salvaged par on 10 out of a hideous bunker. By the time he reached the 12th, he had a three-shot lead and was almost taking complete breaths.
However, the 12th at Augusta dines regularly on final-day three-shot leads. (See, especially, Gary Player, 1962.) And the 12th particularly eats up the kind of deadhead shot Couples struck there on Sunday: He aimed straight at the pin near the sloping front of the green instead of shooting at the fat of the green, the way anybody with any sense would have. “I didn’t want to (shoot for the pin),” he said later, ”but there’s this thing in my brain that just shoved the ball over there.”
The ball landed halfway up the bank, eight feet from the front of the green, and started to roll back, just as every ball before it had done. Just as first-round leader Lanny Wadkins’s ball had done on Saturday. That one rolled back into the water the way all of them had. making Wadkins drop and hit another one into the drink, making Wadkins drop and hit another one, which finally reached the green, making Wadkins finish with an 8, making Wadkins throw the damn ball in the pond to join its treasonous brethren. Wadkins does not have to take that sort of thing from golf balls.
Anyway, as Couples’s ball rolled toward its certain bath, perhaps it saw something. Another Maxfli sat in the water not six inches from the bank. Perhaps Couples’s ball thought of its future and did not want to end up in a barrel of lake balls in some pro shop, on sale three for a dollar. If the ball had rolled in, Couples would most likely have made a double bogey 5, and his three-shot lead would have been cut to one. Instead, the ball inexplicably stopped about a foot from doom.
When a relieved Couples stepped up to it — gingerly — he hit a simple pitch to within gimme range. This day was Couples’s. He made his par.
From there it was a walk in the park — Central Park maybe. He sprayed his tee shots, birdied neither of the par 5s (numbers 13 and 15) and made only one more birdie (on 14) down the homestretch. Parry, though, was nothing to worry about. He unraveled like a cheap sweater. After three-putting three times in a row to finish with a 78, Parry blamed part of his troubles on devilish types in the crowd. “On the third hole,” he said, “I heard somebody coughing on my backswing.” Hey, Deborah, next time take a Luden’s.
Only one man stood in Couples’s way now, the very man who had tutored him over the past two years, the man who had taught him that “when you have a lead, get more of a lead,” the man who had steeled Couples’s eye and hardened his heart during a triumphant Ryder Cup pairing — Floyd. Floyd got to within a shot of the lead with a birdie at number 15, but Couples replied with that birdie on number 14. Only when Couples’s three-wood on 18 caught a fairway bunker was there the slightest hint of a playoff, but the unrushable Couples swept a seven-iron cleanly out and onto the green.
Happiness is needing only to three-putt to win the Masters. Couples lagged a 25-footer 24 feet, 10 inches. Tap. He earned $270,000, putting himself over $1 million in prize money for the year. And it wasn’t even tax day yet.
Couples is now the most dominant phenom since Johnny Miller in the early 1970s, and the proof was evident at Augusta. Watson once said great players “learn that they don’t need to play their best golf to win. They only need to shoot the lowest score.” That was Couples’s week: His floor was the field’s ceiling.
In the Butler Cabin, which is near the 10th hole, Nantz waited to conduct the interview of his life. Back in the dorm, he and Couples had lain awake plotting their glories. “Someday,” Nantz said, “you’ll win the green jacket, and I’ll be there to announce it.”
So when the moment came — after Couples had shot his badge number on Sunday to finish with a 13-under-par 275 — Nantz said, “I’d like to be the first to congratulate you as the 1992 Masters champion.” They both cried a little.
Outside, Deborah was crying too. “Dang,” she said. “I picked Davis Love.”