AUGUSTA, Ga. – Old Masters champions don't retire, they head to the senior tour. And once a year they get to return to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National to relive their glory years. And some of them can still knock it around this fabled track.
Fred Couples is 53. He should have hung up the "Gone fishin'" sign long ago, but that's hard to do when you can still hit it the way Couples does. So every April at Augusta, Freddie, the 1992 champion, walks the prestine fairways, waves to his adoring fans and feels he is a superstar again. And here he is at five under par after 36 holes and one shot off Jason Day's lead at the 77th Masters. Surprised? Don't be. He was leading on Friday night last year before finishing 12th.
Ah, Freddie. He is as much a part of Masters tradition as pimento cheese sandwiches and the holy trinity of ceremonial starters Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. While the Big Three coax one drive off the first tee then head for the clubhouse in search of a sofa, Couples, like Bernhard Langer, goes on believing he can turn back time. He's kidding himself – and us – of course.
He lollops along in what looks like slippers with that loosey-goosey stride of his as if he is heading for the beach back home in California. The reality is that he wouldn't be walking at all if it weren't for regular pain-killing injections in his ailing back that, apparently, are so strong they are like epidurals.
But the pain of not being here is worse. This is Couples' 29th Masters dating back to his first appearance in 1983, and Boom Boom can still give the ball a mighty belt. His swing remains a thing of beauty. He has racked up 11 top 10s alongside that lone victory, and he has missed the cut just twice. He can't win, though, right?
"Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this?" Couples asked out loud. "It didn't happen last year. I was four over pretty fast on Saturday, which was a real bummer."
Couples admitted when he gets to a certain age and can no longer drive the ball as far, "it's going to be impossible for me to play well, physically impossible. If I can drive it close to these long hitters – if they're hitting 9-irons and I'm hitting 8-irons – then I'm still right there. But when this course becomes middle to long irons to every hole, you can forget it."
So what would Couples do in the unlikely event that he actually wins his second green jacket 21 years after his first? "I'm going to quit. I swear to God. I'm going to retire. It's probably not ever going to happen."
Couples has senior company on the leaderboard. Some of them should think about quitting, too. Langer (champion in 1985 and 1993) is 55 years old and two-under par, while Sandy Lyle (1988 champion) is also 55 and one-over par. What they all lack in power and youth, they make up for in guile and years of accumulated Augusta knowledge.
Lyle tied for 20th in 2009, but he hasn't made a cut since and has only made it to the weekend six times since 1995. Credit to him for this week, but he knows the end is nigh.
"If I'm shooting 78 and 80, I'll probably re-think what's going on," he said. "At the moment I'm feeling good. My body's still in – I don't have any knee or back operations. I'm going to keep going. I mean, four, five six years maximum. It's hard on the old body to get around this course."
Langer hasn't made a cut since 2005, when he tied for 20th. The year before, he tied for fourth and has 12 top 25s in 29 starts. The difference between Lyle and Langer, however, is that the German still believes he can win. Old age can do that to even the greatest of champions. Delusions of grandeur?
"I have a different attitude this year," he said. "I'm trying to win, not just trying to scrape in and make the cut."
Good for him, but it was not clear whether he had taken his medication.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of players that make the cut at age 55," he said. "So that's an achievement by itself."
But he doesn't truly believe a player in his fifties can actually win, does he?
"It's possible," he said. "For me to win, everything has to go my way. I always thought Freddie (could win) because he hits it a good 30 yards past me."
Of course, some other former champions provide a counterweight to Langer's optimism – Tom Watson, Craig Stadler, Ian Woosnam and Ben Crenshaw. Woosnam, the 1991 champion, shot 80 and 78 has made one cut since 2001. This was the 55-year-old's first tournament of the year. He's more Wheezy than Woosie these days. The same for Stadler, who signed for a pair of 79s. He is 59 and was the Walrus when he won way back in 1982. Time to be pushed back into the ocean?
Watson is 63. His 79 and 78 tell you that his winning years of 1977 and 1981 are a long time ago. Watson was second after the first round three years ago and finished 18th, but that was his first weekend appearance since 2002. Crenshaw was at the bottom of the pile, limping home with an 80 and 84. The 1984 and 1995 champion is 61 but looks older; his tanned face wrinkled like an old leather briefcase. The only cuts these guys are going to be seeing any time soon are the prime cut variety.
Couples, Langer or Lyle won't win, of course, despite what they'd have us, and themselves, believe. And it matters not that the others can barely make it up the hill to the clubhouse. What makes the Masters unique is that the tournament is just as much about celebrating golf's past champions as it is anointing new ones.