As Easy As T-P-C: Carefree Fred Couples won the Players Championship by cruising to a final-round 64

As Easy As T-P-C: Carefree Fred Couples won the Players Championship by cruising to a final-round 64

Couples at the Players Championship in 1996
AP Photo/Hans Deryk

This article first appeared in the April 8, 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated

You get the feeling Fred Couples rolls out of bed looking like Dr. Cliff Truelove on Days of Our Children. He is the sort who could make a Hefty 40-gallon trash bag look like something by After Six. Happy and unhurriable, he is a kind of Winnie the Pooh in cleats, ambling along, life coming easily and in bunches. His swing is slower than the last day of school, holes jump in the way of his golf balls, and money knocks on doors to find him. He is allergic to practice yet has 17 tournament wins worldwide, including a Masters, almost $8 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour, a collection of vintage Mustangs and a traffic-stopping fiance.

Tommy Tolles, on the other hand, looks like a walking antacid commercial. He is only 29, but his worried, coal-black eyes are dark-rimmed, and his eyebrows bend toward his nose like a stock-market plunge. Clothes hang awkwardly on his flagstick body, and he has a barber-school haircut that gives him that just-shaved Anthony Perkins look. He is a citizen of Flat Rock, N.C., where his idea of a perfect day is to “pull a few weeds.” He must practice constantly, has won the Nike Ozarks Classic and last year finished 116th on the Tour money list. Before that he spent seven years trying to scrape out a living on the discount tours with a frenetic swing that ends up with his arms wrapped around him like a straitjacket. Generally, if rain is expected, it will fall on Tommy Tolles.

Yet there they were on Sunday, golf’s Cary Grant and Arnold Stang, one shot apart with three holes to play at the year’s biggest tournament so far, the near-major cashfest known as the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

To Couples, a win would have meant absolutely… nothing. “I could care less about the money [$630,000 for first place, fattest in PGA Tour history] or the exemption [10 years],” he said during the week. That was odd because the 36-year-old Couples had not sniffed the lead of a major or a near-major in more than two years, not since he folded up in back pain on the practice range of the 1994 Doral Open. But then Couples is most blissful when he is away from the spotlight he so dearly hates. Since his great years of 1991 and ’92, when he won five Tour events, Couples has changed his home (from West Palm Beach to Dallas), his main squeeze (from Deborah, after an ugly, expensive divorce, to fiance Tawnya Dodds) and his money-list ranking (from No. 1 to No. 63). He became something of a Czar of the Silly Season, which is golf’s unofficial, global money grab from November to New Year’s Eve, when the real tournaments aren’t played. “Nobody practices for those things.” he explains. “So they’re kind of right up my alley.”

But now, with a new doctor who makes house calls — physical therapist Tom Boers flew in from Columbus, Ga., on March 26 and twisted Couples into shape right there in the hotel room — he seemed to be swinging as sweetly as ever. Not that the patient appeared starving for a comeback. “Aren’t you hungry for a win?” Couples was asked during the week. He thought for a second, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure.” Not exactly Lust for Life.

To Tolles, on the other hand, a win would have meant just about… everything. A victory would keep him on the Tour until 2006. That he was even close was almost more than his brain could process. On Friday night, after shooting a second-round 64 to take a two-shot lead, he nearly wore out his hotel TV remote, flipping back and forth between ESPN and CNN to see his name on the screen. “I finally had to stop,” he said. “My heart was so inflated I thought it was going to explode.”

The whole week was an exercise in opposites. Every day some double-Dopplered weatherman predicted torrid rain showers and a Monday finish, but only part of last Thursday’s round was postponed. All week the talk was about how the streak of first-time Tour winners would end at three at the Players, what with the finest field of the year entered and Pete Dye’s Little Shop of Horrors TPC course lurking. But three of the first four names on the leader board by last Saturday evening — Tolles, David Duval and Michael Bradley — had never appeared on a Tour trophy.

Meanwhile, galactics like Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange and Tom Kite had missed the cut. It was the first time in Norman’s 17-year career that he had missed two cuts running, having shot a second-round 76 two weeks ago at Bay Hill. Not very timely, considering Augusta is his next start. “Three strikes and I’m out,” he said.

Sunday morning dawned as a very big deal to Tolles, who had gone to bed still holding on to a two-shot lead, then tossed and turned and grew the Butterfly That Ate Jacksonville in his stomach. “I’m not going to lie,” he would say later, “I was nervous. I was kind of in a fog, just watching myself playing stupid.”

At four shots back Couples was asked before the final round if he would need to shoot another 63, equaling his course record, to win. “Wait, wait,” he said. “I don’t have any 63s in me.”

But sometimes the harder you try, the worse you do, and the less you worry, the more you succeed. Couples and his swing and his infernal inner peace came out on Sunday with locked-on radar. He hit within three feet on the 5th hole and two feet on the 8th, drained everything and had himself a sporty 32 on the front nine. He had closed the lead of Tolles and sudden arrival Colin Montgomerie to one shot. Said Couples’s longtime caddie, Joe LaCava, “With Freddy, he either has it, or he really, really has it, Today, from the first iron, I knew he really, really had it.”

On the back nine, Tolles and Montgomerie played keep-away with the lead, while Couples remained one back. “Hey, look at that,” Couples said to LaCava, standing in the middle of the 16th fairway, checking a scoreboard. “Monty birdied 16.”

“No,” said LaCava. “He’s behind us. He just birdied 14.” Vive la difference. The strategy changed. Couples would go for eagle on the par-5 16th, since his two rivals would surely make birdie there and perhaps eagle themselves. LaCava put a two-iron in his man’s hand, and Couples looked out at a sucker pin, tucked behind 220 yards of grass, bunker, lake, railroad ties and death. After Couples hit, LaCava said, “Get up.” That is a very famous phrase between the two because it was exactly what LaCava had said in 1992, after Couples hit his final-round eight-iron shot at Augusta National’s revered par-3 12th. That little ball listened. It got up just enough to cling, impossibly, to a steep pond bank in front of the green, defying physics and preserving an eventual Masters victory. This two-iron shot, though, didn’t seem to be listening. It was going short and right and ugly. “I figured it was wet,” said Couples.

But Couples is the kind of guy who could put a quarter in a pay phone and have it pay 100 to 1. The ball landed two feet beyond the water’s edge, hit a little bank, then bounded crazily, unthinkably left, away from the water on the other three sides and to within 25 feet of the stick. “Another foot either way and we’re in the water,” said LaCava.

Then Couples stepped up and stroked the ball into the bottom of the little white cup for an eagle and a one-shot lead.

Tolles was standing on the 14th green at the time. “I’ve been [in the gallery at] the Masters,” Tolles would say later, “and I have heard the crowd after Jack Nicklaus made birdies, but you don’t hear a lot of roars any louder than the one I heard today for Freddy. It sounded like 20,000 people just won the lottery.”

And after Couples went on to make a 30-footer on the island-green 17th for yet another birdie, Tolles said, “It sounded like those same 20,000 people won the lottery again.”

The roars must have shaken Tolles’s inner ear because suddenly he got vertigo. He hit his approach at 15 off a mound near the green and made bogey, then made nothing pars at the 16th and the 17th, and bogeyed 18. Trying to catch up, Montgomerie rinsed his second shot on the 16th and made the first of two closing bogeys.

So Couples had told the truth. He did not have any 63s in him, but he had a 64, which did nicely. “I hate to say it,” he admitted afterward, “but it was a pretty easy 64.” Standing in third place in the 16th fairway, he had simply reached out and grabbed the tournament by the larynx, going three under on the last three infamous holes to Tolles’s one over and Montgomerie’s two over. Couples won by four shots with an 18-under 270, reclaiming a title he had won 12 years earlier, the first player to repeat as champion at the TPC course.

So, what does this mean to you, Freddy? “I guess it gives me another trophy and some crystal and a bunch of money,” he said. Worse than that, it means he has got to stay on the Tour until he’s 46. “That’s scary,” he said. “I wasn’t really planning on playing that long.”

Tolles would strangle to have such a problem. “I guess the fairy tale isn’t going to happen this week,” he said glumly. Despite a third-place finish two weeks ago at New Orleans and a share of second place on Sunday, not to mention the combined $400,000 that came with those tragedies, he still looked like a man who would like to go back to Flat Rock and crawl under it. “I hope I do something different next time,” he said, chin heavy in his hands, “or I am going to live a real disappointing life.”

Definite Eeyore.

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