AUGUSTA, Ga. — Much has been made this week about the sneaker-golf shoes of Fred Couples, the leader of the 2010 Masters after a first-round 66, a career-low at Augusta National.
Freddy is big on loafers, and these are basically loafers with different marketing. The footwear matches the man — casual, comfortable, cool, soft, supple, spikeless. There was a time when Couples had sharper edges, a bit like Tiger. Then, as now, Tom Watson (who shot 67 on Thursday) intervened.
"I was probably 27, 28," Couples told me in a lengthy and sometimes painfully candid interview for Golf Magazine last year. "He said, 'Come to Kansas City sometime.' And I got there, and we didn't play much golf."
Instead, what they did was hang out, a bit like what Couples did for Woods on Monday as he took the wing of the recently disgraced No. 1 in a practice round. It was Couples paying it forward, an extension among golf's brotherhood of Watson's gesture to young Freddy all those years ago.
"We played golf one day and practiced another day, but we went and hunted," Couples said. "I couldn't shoot a gun, and I couldn't even hit these cans. I didn't kill anything nor hit anything. And we fished on his farm for bass or trout. I don't know how to fish, and I don't shoot. He loved all this stuff. It was entertaining. We went to a couple of Royals games, because I knew George Brett real well."
Couples has lived a lot since then. He has outlived two wives, the first of whom, Deborah, committed suicide long after they had divorced, the second of whom died of breast cancer just last year. Although they were living apart by then, Fred and Thais, who once appeared in feature stories and ad campaigns together, were still married.
He won't marry again — that much Couples is sure of. He pads around his adobe-style home in Palm Springs and when he feels like it he takes a dip in the pool or practices at the Madison Club. In December, on the verge of new life on the Champions circuit, he practiced a lot.
That he can do so is a minor miracle, given the state of his fragile back over the years. He has hung upside-down by his ankles. He has voluntarily turned himself into a human pin cushion in Korea. He has been stretched, poked and prodded.
There was "this lady in Oregon who did wavelength stuff to break up fluid and get rid of inflammation," another woman in Dallas and, since late 2007, a doctor in Waco, Texas.
"He's got some therapists who beat you up," Couples said. "There's stretching, there's pulling. They like to elongate the body. I hang. And they tug on every inch of your body. They start with your toes, and they pop your ankles. They might work on my ankles and feet for an hour and a half or two hours-per foot. Then they move up."
Sometimes he thinks back to what he might have achieved without the bad back and with more good breaks and timely putting. He was "maybe one putt from beating Phil [Mickelson]" at the '06 Masters and collapsed down the stretch of the 1990 PGA, which Wayne Grady won.
But for the most part, Couples is comfortable (there's that word again) with his 15 Tour wins including one major, the '92 Masters. He has won overseas, and he has won silly-season events. He has won a lot of those. And now he's eying a victory for the aged that would most likely put him into the Hall of Fame.
"To win at Augusta at age 50 would be a pipedream," he said on Thursday, after making seven birdies and a bogey, but apparently not that much of a dream, because here is what Fred Couples said next: "Can I still win? Of course."