Couples' Riviera magic a perfect finish to unforgettable West Coast swing

Couples’ Riviera magic a perfect finish to unforgettable West Coast swing

Fred Couples, 51, could become the oldest PGA Tour winner in 35 years.
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This has been the best West Coast swing in forever. Jonathan Byrd, the little boxer, duking it out at Kapalua with Robert Garrigus, who by the end was just trying to stay on his feet. Jhonny Vegas in the desert. Jhonny Vegas! Phil nearly holing out that wedge shot on the last hole at Torrey Pines, with Bones tending the pin from across the pond. Mssrs. Points and Murray at Pebble. And now this, this Sunday, at the old L.A. Open, at old Riviera, with old Fred right there.

You know why Hollywood likes sequels? Because when you make Big Momma’s House 3, you’re recycling the millions you spent promoting BMH 1 and 2. The built-in audience is already there, all primed and waiting. And so it will be today. Some of us have been watching golf at Riviera for 60 or more years. Some of have watched Fred Couples’s career play out. He has teased us before, and he’ll tease us again. Is today the day he wins a splashy Tour event on a sparkly course over players young enough to be his children? Probably not but maybe yes, and that’s why we’ll be watching.

Fred, like all geniuses, is ruthlessly efficient. He’ll get more out of three weeks this year than most players will get out of 30. He already owns this Northern Trust Open. He’ll be a stakeholder at the Masters come April, where he’ll most likely play practice rounds with his new buddy Tiger Woods and where he’ll most likely post some sort of lick-your-lips 36-hole score.

And come fall, he’ll head to gorgeous Royal Melbourne, with Tiger and Phil and DJ in tow, for the Presidents Cup, and the stars will tell us what a pleasure it is to play for a players’ captain like Fred. Maybe MJ will be hanging around. Greg Norman and Ernie Els and other golfing royalty will there, representing the Internationals. By the time Fred and Shark have their final soul shake, you’ll be pining away for the early Clinton years and the promise of Apple stock and wondering why Couples is not in the Hall of Fame.

The truth is, Fred hasn’t earned a place in the Hall of Fame, not yet. He still could. A victory today, making him one of the oldest players to win on the PGA Tour, would be a significant step. Winning a road-game Presidents Cup, to follow up on his U.S. win at Harding Park in 2009, would be big. But what he really needs, and even the thought of this could send his back into spasms, is to dominate the Champions tour for the next few years. Before he’s done, if he could win two of the three senior majors — the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship — he’d be headed for the World Golf Hall of Fame, off I-95 in northern Florida, not far from where he won his two Players titles. The Players is a good event, but there’s something desperate about it. So unlike Fred.

His best chance to win on the regular tour would be, of all places, at the British Open in a strong wind where everybody is missing putts. People who know what they’re talking about will tell you that nobody hits more pure shots than Fred, even now. For years Tom Watson, who lost a British Open playoff at age 59, was the same way. Of course, Watson, as a former winner of the claret jug, has a spot in the Open every year, or he will until he becomes a pensioner in the eyes of the R&A. Fred has to earn a spot in the field, which will take more effort than he might be willing to make.

If you went to a big high school, you knew somebody like Fred, someone who, unlike most of us, was actually smooth. This has all been said before and if wins today it’ll be said again: Fred’s got style, more style points than anybody. He’s got that smooth walk. Smooth hair, and who cares what color it is now? A smooth voice that lets him talk about anything — the NFL draft, new movies, old cars, gardening. Most of all, for us golfers sitting at home, he’s got such a smooth swing, a backswing that looks like he’s lifting a blanket over his head, a downswing that looks like one of those big Pacific rollers that takes forever to crest and then comes crashing down all at once, with so much fury and power and macho cool all you can do is stand in awe, look at your Sunday-afternoon slippered feet and wonder if you should be playing in tennis shoes, too.