AUGUSTA, Ga. — The last time Fred Couples missed the cut at the Masters was, well, never.
That changed Friday afternoon. His streak goes back 25 years to his first Masters, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was still President and invaded Grenada, the world still used rotary-dial phones (kids, ask your parents what that means) and Jim Valvano and North Carolina State University were the Cinderella NCAA basketball champs.
For the record, Couples tied for 32nd in that Masters and won $2,900. Twenty-five years is a long time for anything. It’s a record that means nothing, in some ways, much like having perfect attendance in high school versus making the honor roll.
Longevity counts for something, though. See Cal Ripken for details. Couples was batting 1.000 at Augusta. He was 23-for-23 in Masters cuts made but a more important stat is this — he won the 1992 Masters and has worn the green jacket here every year since.
That streak is over.
The last official gasp was a ten-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole late Friday afternoon. It looked like it was going in but, like a lot of putts on Augusta National’s unforgiving greens, it didn’t. So Couples shot 76-72, finishing at four over par and missing the cut by one cruel stroke. It turned out to be a good week for Gary Player, at least. He shared the record of 23 consecutive cuts made with Couples and doesn’t have to give it up. Player also teed it up in his 51st Masters, surpassing Arnold Palmer for most appearances. The Big Three are old men but don’t kid yourself, they’re still competitive. Player beat Arnie one last time.
You know easy-going Fred. He barely made the cut last year after shooting a pair of 76s that left him in 46th place. The cuts record doesn’t interest him. Playing well does. If he could trade that streak for something tangible, something useful — like making that five-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole in 2006 when he and Phil Mickelson played in the last group on Sunday and Couples still had a chance to win a second Masters — he’d do it in a heartbeat. Fred three-putted there, suddenly looking like a 46-year-old man with damaged putting nerves, not the nonchalant Boom Boom with the moppy hair that we still see when we look at him.
“The cuts, to be honest with you, I don’t consider that great of a deal,” said Couples, now 48 and scheduled to captain the American Presidents Cup team next year. “Playing well in this tournament is my goal. Even as well as I played last week, I think I set my sights a little high yesterday. I struggled and tried to hit better shots than I could hit and I went from two over to three over to four over, and you’re kind of done.
“I’m not going to make the cut. I’m kind of disappointed in that. But I’m really disappointed with the way I played. You’re not going to play Augusta very good if you just birdie two par-5s. That’s not what you want. It’d be fun to make a few putts. When you don’t make even one, it’s not easy out there. I three-putted the 11th to go to six over. I never got in the tournament. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun.”
The disappointing part is that Couples had hope. He played well in Houston the week before and tied for fourth with a 67-66 finish, pretty impressive for a man whose back was so bad that he quit playing tournament golf for the rest of the year after last year’s Masters. This year, he’s seeing a new back specialist and feeling better than he has in a long time. He had already competed in seven events before returning to Augusta this week.
Earlier, Couples had reminisced about that first Masters in ’83, how he was paired with Tom Watson in the third round and shot 81. “I couldn’t keep up with him,” Couples said. “I thought, what a great experience, I hope I get back here someday.”
Except for 1987, he’s been back every year since. And made the cut every year until Friday. Nothing lasts forever. Couples stopped to give a few quick comments to the Masters film crew after he came out of the scoring cabin. He stopped again under the big tree in front of the clubhouse to say a few more words to waiting cameras and reporters.
Then he stode into the clubhouse and went upstairs to the champions’ locker room. His caddie Joe LaCava walked around to the front of the clubhouse, stood the bag up on the porch and sat down on a black bench, aimlessly bouncing a golf ball off the bench’s hard wood — thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack — while chatting with two friends. After a while, he tried bouncing it off the green matting that covered the porch, then he went back to the wood.
Within ten minutes, Couples sauntered out from the clubhouse carrying a pair of shoe bags. The tailgate door of a waiting white Cadillac Escalade slowly, electronically raised. Fred’s friend picked up his golf bag and loaded it in the back while Fred climbed in the passenger’s side. LaCava stood there for a minute, one hand on the passenger door, the other now bouncing a ball off the asphalt, then said goodbye.
The Escalade pulled out, inched past a club employee who was watering the grass circle in front of the clubhouse (the one with the yellow flowerbed shaped like the United States, the club’s famous logo) and then disappeared down Magnolia Lane.
It was early evening. Dim sunlight caught the tops of trees and gave them a warm glow. A light breeze drifted through the porch. The sun hadn’t set. Not yet. But Fred Couples was gone.