PITTSBURGH — Fred Couples stopped in the doorway on his way out of the media center tent on a scorching Friday afternoon. He reached up, grabbed the top of the metal door jamb and simply hung there for a few seconds. It was self-maintenance for a stiff back.
Call it symbolic, or even an omen, but you would certainly expect Couples to hang around near the lead of the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship all weekend here at the Fox Chapel Golf Club.
Couples is the best player in senior golf when he’s healthy, and this week he’s close enough. His putter is working and he’s driving it well, which enables him to overpower the short (6,696 yards), classic old-style Seth Raynor design. Is it too early to declare Fred as the guy to beat? Maybe not.
All Couples did in 96-degree heat was birdie four of his first six holes and four of his last six, including the last three in a row, for a seven-under-par 63. Couples has a one-shot lead over lesser-known Joe Daley, who has amassed 16 birdies in two rounds.
Couples’s long history of back issues undoubtedly was a major reason he didn’t achieve more success during his long PGA Tour career. One Masters and 14 other PGA Tour victories, was pretty good, but he had the ability to do much more if his back had cooperated. He’s still in the business of coercing it, and still not enthused to talk about it.
“It comes and goes,” he said of his back pain. He was just in Los Angeles to have some shots for it last week. “A lot of shots, actually,” he said. The procedure included an epidural.
Anyway, it takes probably two weeks for the treatment to kick in and this week, he admitted, “I’m still sore from the shots. It hasn’t eased up yet. I’m really, really stiff.”
That’s why he’s hanging from door frames.
The good play by Couples, who is 11 under through 36 holes, is great news for the tournament. Couples is the tour’s biggest marquee name who plays regularly — Tom Watson is only a part-timer now — and he should draw big crowds to Fox Chapel on the weekend despite the current heat wave. It’ll also help to have Couples up there because Tiger Woods is hosting the AT&T National on the PGA Tour this week, and Tiger-related news inevitably drowns out all other golf events.
It’ll be nothing new for Daley to be overshadowed on the weekend. Daley is an Old Dominion alum who had a real job in accounting and finance for a few years before deciding to pursue his dream to play professional golf. He got a late start at the age of 30 and had a journeyman’s career on and off the PGA Tour. Name a mini-tour or a country and he’s probably played it. The Canadian tour. Florida. Chile. South Africa. Jamaica. Bermuda.
He missed most of two years with a neck injury in his mid-40s but came back and won a second Nationwide Tour event in 2005 (his first was in 1997). His biggest claim to fame is something he’s tired of hearing about. In 2001 at PGA Tour Q-school, Daley hit a putt that went in the cup and then popped back out, like some sort of trick birthday candle that relit itself. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, but it counted as a stroke. Daley missed his card on the PGA Tour by one shot.
“I rolled that putt so good, I wish I could roll every putt that good,” Daley said, grinning at the memory. “But that’s ancient history. I’ve moved on.”
Never underestimate the power of the Internet. You can watch a YouTube video of Daley’s infamous putt with just a few clicks. It’s like a nightmare that won’t go away. Daley said he wasn’t surprised that his putt was still alive and kicking on YouTube.
“I saw a replay of it on the Golf Channel recently,” he said with a chuckle. “It fired me back up. The emotions were right there again.”
The cup liner in a hole is supposed to be at least an inch below the top of the cup. On this putt, it was crooked and just below the lip — probably due to an angry golfer or caddie carelessly jerking the flag out of the hole.
“It was the damnedest thing I’d ever seen,” Daley told writers after it happened.
It didn’t stop him, though. Once a talented fringe player who tried to play his way onto the PGA Tour, Daley is now a talented senior player trying to play his way onto the Champions Tour. And he’s succeeding. He got into two Champions Tour events this year via Monday qualifying. The checks he cashed got him a spot in the first senior major championship of the year, the Senior PGA, where a 66-64 finish lifted him to fourth. That payday got him into this week’s major, the Senior Players. And he already made it into the U.S. Senior Open field via qualifying in the Minneapolis area.
Daley, 51, a Scottsdale resident who was born in Chestnut Hill, Pa., is stuck in a sweet rut. He repeated his 66-64 Senior PGA finish with a 66-64 start at Fox Chapel.
“My caddie told me I should try to qualify for some PGA Tour events the way I’m playing,” Daley said. “I am on and my numbers have been really good lately.”
Until the arrival of Couples atop the leaderboard, the real star of this tournament had been the classically designed Fox Chapel course. Watson liked the greens so much he said he was going to take a camera on the course during a practice round so he could take pictures.
“In my design business, these thoughts and green complexes should be reproduced,” he said. “You know what they say, copying something is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Players universally heaped praise on the course with its old-style quirks. The 17th hole, for instance, is a long par 3 with a gigantic green bisected by a deep swale. It’s more or less the course’s signature hole. Some remarkably deep bunkers guard some of the greens, too.
“We don’t play anything like this, it’s so old style and so fun,” said Mark Calcavecchia. “When these greens were originally built, they were about as fast as the fairways. Now they’re running at 13 or 14, and they get a little hairy. This week is fun because the course is truly unique.”
Despite the low scores by a few players — notably Couples and Daley and also U.S. Senior Open champion Olin Browne, who bounced back from an opening 73 with an eight-under 62 — scores were not out of sight even with Fox Chapel’s apparent lack of length. Tom Lehman was the only other player better than six under after two rounds. He shot 67 to get to seven under. Two under par is tied for 17th.
Browne stopped off at Oakmont after the first round to work on his putting, and obviously it paid off in the second round.
“Bruce Vaughan shot 64 yesterday, and if somebody beats you by nine shots, you think, man, what course was he playing?” Browne said. “I’m sure guys are going to say, ‘What?’, when they hear what I shot today. The thing about golf is that hard holes are easy when you play them well and easy holes are hard when you screw them up. That’s just the nature of the game.”
It’s proving especially true at Fox Chapel. The weekend awaits.