Fred Couples is on the Masters leaderboard again at 54. Can he win? Definitely maybe

Fred Couples is on the Masters leaderboard again at 54. Can he win? Definitely maybe

Fred Couples during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National on Friday. Couples shot 71 and is two under for the tournament.
Robert Beck/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred sees all.

He sees the girl in the sundress, the guy in the Seattle Mariners cap, the marshal with the waxed mustache. That waxed mustache could keep Fred engaged for at least a hole, possibly two.

On Friday, in the second round of the Masters, Fred Couples saw a floating cut tee shot off the ninth tee when most guys were drilling it down the right side. On 11, he had 191 yards to the front, plus another 28 to the hole, and he laid up because he figured it was his best chance to make a par (4) on a hole that played almost like a short par-5.

“Its just amazing, what he sees,” Mark Chaney, the veteran caddie now working for Couples, said Friday night after his man shot a second straight 71. At two under through two rounds, Couples was where he always is this time of year, in a position to contend for his second green coat. “I’ve caddied in 21 Masters. Fred has played in 29. He sees things on the course that I never knew were there.

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“He’s not a slow player,” Chaney added. “But when he goes to the towel and throws the grass and looks around, it’s not just this golf artist thing, trying to feel the shot. He’s seeing all the different options.” Since 2006, Couples has made seven cuts. His worst finish is a tie for 13th.

Couples is 54. In 2012, he won the British Senior Open. Last year, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Is winning the Masters this year a fantasy? Not completely. Last year, Couples began his Masters with rounds of 68 and 71. He played in the last twosome on Saturday. A balky back, more than anything, contributed to a third-round 77. “Right now, he’s feeling really good,” his instructor, Paul Marchand of the Shadow Hawk club outside Houston, said Friday. He was standing outside the clubhouse at the end of the day, near where the club barber still had his shop back in 1992, when Couples won his lone major.

“Today,” Marchand added, “you didn’t see any of this–” Marchand did a modest version of the Couples Dance, that pre-shot body wiggle you’ve seen for years, whereby Fred stretches out his back.

It takes a village to keep Fred going. There’s Marchand on the driving range and Jim Nantz, Fred’s University of Houston roommate, in the broadcast booth, annually reminding new golf fans what is essentially true: There may be nobody in the game who hits more flush shots than Couples. For years, there was Joe LaCava carrying Fred’s bag and driving his car. (Couples loathes the hotel-to-club drive, and with LaCava now working for Tiger Woods, assorted others are doing the driving.) Tom Boers, a physical therapist, has logged a thousand hours (or something like that) on Couples’s back. Fred’s longtime agent, Lynn Roach, attends to all the minutiae of the man’s life: his travel plans, his contracts, his long list of stuff he cannot be bothered with.

To win, all you have to do is beat all the other players, and that’s going to be a less daunting task this year than it has been in years past. Why? Woods is not playing. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els missed the cut. Those are three key players who could beat Couples who won’t beat Couples. Through 36 holes, he trails Bubba Watson by five. Depending on what Couples does and what Watson does, that’s either meaningful or meaningless.

Last year in the Saturday round, Couples made a 7 on 17 — he’s one person not sorry to see the demise of Ike’s Tree. He could shoot anything on Saturday, of course, but it seems less likely this year that he’ll shoot himself out of the tournament. For one thing — and it’s a big thing — his short putting looks better. He has a long-shafted putter that he does not anchor in his belly (although it does rub against his billowing shirt). He goes left-hand low or right-hand low, depending on the length of the putt, which isn’t a great sign of putting confidence, but when you’re 54 and you find something that works on the green, you’re way ahead of the game.

Six players are ahead of him on the leaderboard, including defending champion Adam Scott, and Watson, but Couples, too, knows how to win at Augusta. He’s looking to do more than hang around.

“A second win here would be — I have no idea, I don’t know,” he said. The verbatim quote has never been his friend. “I don’t think about it. I think about playing well. When you start thinking about [a second Masters win], you kind of go crazy. Would I like to put on another jacket here? Yeah. But I’ve got 36 holes to go. I need to play better than I did the last two days. I felt like I played really well. I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

Read those last three sentences again, if you’re so inclined. You have to earn the right to say those sentences and to truly understand them the way Couples does. His task is daunting. It’s improbable. It is not impossible.