What I've Learned: Fred Couples on how to get the most out of golf and your game—and have a great time doing it

What I’ve Learned: Fred Couples on how to get the most out of golf and your game—and have a great time doing it

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BIG TIME: "The Masters is my favorite event, and this year's was special."
David Cannon/Getty Images

I’ve played golf professionally
for about 30 years now, and the game
has given me a lot. The opportunity to
play many of the world’s best courses
and compete against the finest players in the most
prestigious tournaments is something I’ll always be
thankful for. But when it comes down to it, the greatest
thing about my career in golf has been the fun.
I’ve made a lot of friends in the game over the years,
and I still enjoy seeing them. It’s true that at times,
like when my back was acting up or I wasn’t playing
well, traveling the Tour could seem like work. But in
the end I still enjoy the game and I especially love
winning.

I’ve been fortunate to have had quite a bit
of success in my brief Champions Tour career, and
I’m looking forward to continuing to play for several
more years, provided my back stays healthy. In the
following pages you’ll find my thoughts on a number
of subjects related to my golf career. Hopefully some
of my experiences and my advice will help you get
as much fun out of the game as I have.

PLAYING AUGUSTA

Augusta is different than other
places that I’ve played a lot, and
love, like Riviera or Colonial. At
some courses I feel I can come in
playing somewhat poorly and still
score well. At Augusta, if you’re not
hitting the ball well, you can really
get in trouble.

Regardless of how I’m playing, I
never have a game plan when I go
to the Masters. If I hit a good drive on a par 5, I try to attack,
and if I don’t then I figure something out. My approach to the
course is a lot like my game—it’s all feel. If I step up to the first
tee and hit a good drive I feel confident. My main objective
then is putting.

At this year’s Masters, I probably had more fun than any
other year, except for maybe ’92, when I won. It’s my favorite
event and I was obviously playing extremely well. The 66
I shot in the first round was the lowest score I’ve ever had
there, and it was pretty easy. The whole week was easy for
me in terms of my game. I was drawing the ball off the tee
and driving it past everyone I played with. I think I picked
up 10 or 15 yards because I was hitting it so well. I was also
very accurate, which is a great combination. There were only a
couple of times when I hit the ball better at Augusta than this
year, like in ’06 when I lost to Phil on Sunday. That day I felt
I played better than most of the other guys, but I just didn’t
putt very well. This year I putted extremely well, especially
on Thursday. As a result I hung in there through most of the
tournament. Being in contention at the Masters on Sunday is
the most fun for me. I’d trade a lot of other wins to have that
opportunity again.

PUTTING

Hitting full shots is very natural
and easy for me, but putting is more
of an art. I see the line from behind
the ball and then hope I see
the same line when I get over the
ball. When I do, I tend to putt well.
Sometimes I get over the ball and I
don’t see the same thing I saw from
behind the ball and it really throws me off. The result is often
a quick or wishy-washy stroke. You definitely need to feel confident
in your read if you’re going to make putts consistently.
Short putts give me some trouble because they tend to be
more dependent on mechanics than feel. It’s funny, but my
head tends to stay still on most shots except two- and three-footers,
where it’s critical. When I’m struggling with the short
ones I think, “Keep your head still.” The worst thing you can
do is move your body or head on a two-footer because it takes
almost nothing to open or close the clubface just a tiny bit,
which then leads to a miss.

I’ve been playing with the belly putter for quite a while now,
and it’s definitely helped my back. I first tried it on a whim
and putted incredibly well for a few days in a row at my home
course. Then I took it out to a tournament in Las Vegas and
shot a couple of rounds in the mid-60s, and that was pretty
much it. I wanted to try something different and I thought it
would be a good change. I also thought it would help me stay
competitive longer.

I don’t really practice putting much—if I do 10 minutes a
week that’s a lot. Even before a round I just go to the putting
green and hit a few 40-footers to get a feel for the speed. I
can’t bend over and putt for an extended period of time and
then get up on the tee and make a good swing, so I don’t. But
I don’t think it hurts me that much.

If you struggle with putting don’t be afraid to try something
new. Early in my career, if a guy went cross-handed we all assumed
it was because he couldn’t putt anymore. Then one day
I tried it and it felt really good and my stroke actually looked
better, too. It just seemed more stable than the normal method.
Now there’s the claw and a bunch of other methods guys are
using, and they can all work. If something feels good to you,
never hesitate to give it a try.

POWER AND TEMPO

I think a lot of amateurs hold the club too tight. The tighter you
hold anything, the slower you’ll be. You really need to be soft
and supple to create clubhead speed and power. When I’m at
address, you could walk up and take the club out of my hands
easily. That’s how softly I hold it. And when I reach impact
my right hand feels like it’s almost off the club, which gives
me more of a powerful hit through
the ball than if I was choking the
grip. I wouldn’t necessarily teach
anyone to do that, but it’s the right
kind of feel.

If you want to improve your
power you need to work on your
swing—that’s the best way to learn
to swing harder. When your swing
gets better so will your confidence,
and that’s just as important as mechanics.
When I’m finished practicing
and I’m fully warmed up, I’ll go
and hit eight or 10 drives as hard as
I can. When I nail a bunch in a row
it builds my confidence.

My tempo goes along with my relaxed approach to my grip
and setup. When I take the club away I just think about making
a good backswing. I definitely don’t muscle up in preparation
for a big drive, I just try to stay relaxed. Then the split second
when I’m coming into impact I try to hit it as hard as possible.
It might not look like I’m putting a lot of effort into it, but I
am—it’s just that my body is free of tension. After that, I let
the club go completely and it naturally folds into a relaxed
finish position. Because my balance is good my finish almost
always feels comfortable.

PRACITCE

My friend and coach Paul Marchand tells a story about when
we were in college at the University of Houston. As he tells it,
Jim Nantz, Paul, and I went to hit balls one day, and after a
half hour Paul noticed I was gone. He says he found me taking
a nap in the car. I don’t know if I remember it like that
exactly, but the truth is I liked to play, not practice. We used to
go to Memorial Park [a local muni], and Paul would hit balls
for hours. But I couldn’t do it. I would just go for a walk or
something to get away for a bit. I could never sit in one spot
on a driving range and bang balls.

Now that I’m older I actually practice more than I play,
but not so much on a driving range. I prefer to hit drives off
an actual tee and then hit shots down the fairway. I think it’s
closer to the real thing and it helps me focus. When I worked
with Paul for periods during my career I would never just
go in for a two-hour lesson. I liked to take two or three days
and work on stuff and then hit some balls. If you’re working
with a pro I recommend you try longer sessions if possible. It
can take a while to understand what it is you’re trying to do.
I think it’s important to hit a fair number of practice shots,
but not with a driver every time. That’s probably the most
common mistake among amateurs. You’ll groove your swing
much better with a mid-iron than a driver. If you can hit your
5- or 6-iron well, you should be able to drive it well. Pace plays
a big role in golf, and swinging a long club like a driver makes
it hard to develop consistent tempo.

FADE VS. DRAW

When I played my best I was hitting a very hard fade. I could
aim left and just swing. Although my body was aiming left my
eyes were on the target and that’s where the ball would fly. Once
in a while I would hit a pull, but mostly the ball would go where
I was looking and then cut. If I over-cut it the ball might end
up in the edge of the rough or the right side of the green, but it
rarely got into big trouble. I hit a lot of greens with that swing
because it was easy for me and the ball landed softly. Paul was
my coach for many of those years and he loved the way I hit
that shot, so I never really tried to change it.
After I hurt my back [in 1994], I stopped working with a
full-time coach for a few years and practiced on my own. I got
away from trying to go after it so hard and started drawing
the ball more because it was easier on my body. At that time
I was living in the desert and I started working with Butch
Harmon, who was nearby in Las Vegas. Some people think
Butch got me drawing the ball, but really that was what I was
doing when we started working together.

FREDDIE SPEAKS

On teaching: “Everybody teaches a system, but I just
try to shoot where I’m aiming. I play by sight and by feel,
not with technical thoughts.”
On wealth: “I didn’t have money growing up. Now I have a
lot, and it’s not that big of a deal to me. It’s kind of irrelevant.”
On amateurs: “The biggest mistake I see in pro-ams
is misclubbing. My amateur partners often hit the ball
decently, but either they don’t take enough club on their
approach shots, or they hit driver when they shouldn’t.
It costs them a lot of strokes.”
On aging: “The Champions Tour is a great spot for me.
I can still really play, and I know I can compete on the regular
Tour if I want, but I have a better chance to win playing
against my old friends than against the young guys.”


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