AUGUSTA, Ga.–There's something about the power of Fred.
He charms you with his skill, disarms you with his cool and makes you believe that anything is possible.
Like a 53-year-old winning the Masters.
Like a 53-year-old winning the Masters a month before he's inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Like a 53-year-old with a bad back and a frequently gimpy putting stroke outplaying Tiger Woods on the weekend to win the 77th Masters. Which, it appears, is exactly what Fred will have to do.
He is one of a handful of pro golfers who needs only one name. With apologies to a man named Funk, there is only one Fred, and his name is Couples. In the category of Believe-It-Or-Not, Fred is moving into rarefied air. He has won only one major — this one, when his coolness caused a suspension in the laws of gravity and his ball somehow stayed on the bank at the 12th hole on Sunday in 1992. He saved par from there, somewhat miraculously, when he probably would've made a confidence-shaking double bogey if that ball hadn't stopped on that slope. It was less unlikely than you may think, though, because a Friday storm caused Rae's Creek to overflow its banks. Fred's lucky spot was under water on that Friday. Was it really so unlikely it would come to rest in a soft spot?
But this is Fred we're talking about, and we'd rather believe in miracles.
Couples being back in the hunt at the Masters shouldn't come as a surprise, even at 53. This is becoming standard operating procedure. Fred has finished among the top 15 in 16 of his 28 appearances, in top 10 on 11 occasions, sixth or better seven times. He isn't slowing down, either. He finished sixth, 15th and 12th in his last three tries, and he is moving into the category of the Old Masters of the Masters, an exclusive group of players who contended at Augusta National after turning 50. The list includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Raymond Floyd.
Couples has always been a Hall of Fame talent, if not perhaps owning a true Hall of Fame record. Blame a bad back that haunted him in the prime of his career and an introspective personality that was allergic to the fuss and attention that comes with being the No. 1 player in the world. One thing he knows he can still do is play Augusta National. He's proving it again this week, not that he needs to.
His play this week has been a surprise because he was playing rubbish when he arrived. So bad, in fact, he changed his routine and came in a day early on Sunday for a practice round. His teacher, Paul Marchand, walked the fairways with him and they tweaked Fred's swing along the way. Even then, he could barely hit a green in regulation during the Wednesday afternoon par-3 contest. He went to the range for another 45 minutes of work afterward.
But this is the Masters. It's Fred. Magic usually happens.
The 18th hole on Friday afternoon was Exhibit A. Couples was putting the finishing touches on a superlative round, one in which he bounced back from a double bogey at the 7th hole to shoot 71 on a difficult scoring day. He and Dustin Johnson were getting ready to putt on that last green. "Dustin looked like he was kind of ready and our two balls were — I guess he was four feet away and I was eight," Couples said. I was looking at Dustin when he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Your ball's rolling.' I looked and my ball trickled down three feet closer, maybe. It made the putt a lot easier."
Couples made that birdie putt for 71. That left him with a 36-hole total of 139, five under par for two rounds, and that was good enough to hold a share of the lead for most of the afternoon.
"I felt very good about what I shot," Couples said. "The golf course is winning today. I'm just having fun watching the leaderboards."
Maybe that's because his name is usually on it. Fred was the 18-hole leader in 2010, the 36-hole leader last year. Here he is again in his familiar neighborhood.
"I would like to have another run," Couples said of his Masters weekend. "Last year, both Jason [Dufner] and I struggled right off the bat Saturday, and we were non-factors and that was not really fun. Hopefully, tomorrow will be different, and I will play well and have a shot at Sunday. That's my goal, but it is hard. I'm not going to kid you. It's a hard course. I'm really tired. I'm swinging hard at every drive."
His famously lazy swing still looks effortless, and yet it's still powerful. Fred has 11 birdies in two rounds and is four under par on the par 5s, a key to success at Augusta National. He has had no three-putts — a victory for his belly putter — and only enough putts through two rounds to match his age — 53. He two-putted from 100 feet for birdie at the 8th, a nice rebound from the double at the 7th.
He and Johnson, paired together along with Branden Grace, made a dynamic duo until the last four holes. Fred shot 68 the first day, Johnson 67. On Friday, Johnson raced into the lead at 7 under par after a birdie at the 13th. While Couples strung together pars from the 13th through the 17th holes, Johnson bogeyed the 14th, chunked a wedge shot into pond with his third at the 15th and made double, bogeyed the 17th and crashed with another double at 18. Fred, this time grateful his ball rolled back, birdied 18.
Dustin is one of the best players in the world and besides a chunk in the water, he didn't hit bad shots," Couples said. "You make bogeys by just missing a spot and three-putting or not getting up-and-down. He's a guy who could win this, and he kind of stepped on himself. He's going to have to burn it up tomorrow. But it can happen."
It could happen for Couples too. He keeps putting himself in position in this event, and it's obviously no accident. Don't mistake his carefree demeanor for disinterest. Fred is never more interested than he is here. At the way-back 11th tee on Friday, for example, Johnson hit first and bombed a drive over the right trees and out of sight. Was it OK? He couldn't tell.
Couples ranks among the most affable and most popular playing companions in golf. Phil Mickelson, paired with Fred on Sunday in '10, credited his opponent with keeping him relaxed during that last round on his way to victory. Johnson appeared to be interested in conversation, or at least to ask Fred if he thought his drive was all right. But Fred stood there, his eyes fixed on the distance, a tee hanging casually from his mouth. He was focused on Fred, focused on his next shot, the most important of the Masters. The next shot is always the most important shot in golf. Grace hit his drive, and then Fred drilled a beautiful tee ball down the fairway, exactly where he wanted.
Conversation could wait, Fred's body language said. This is serious.
Later, after the 71 was in the books, Fred told the media, "I'm going to quit when I win thing. I swear to God, I'm going to retire. It's probably not ever going to happen, but I'm going to retire."
And do what, he was asked? "Play golf," he answered. "But not this hard."
The laughter from the writers drowned out Fred's own soft chuckle. He almost sounded serious. If he wins this week, Fred just might retire. He made you believe it.
Such is the Power of Fred.