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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Fred Couples floats across Augusta National on a cloud of cool. At 52, he figures he’s in on a free pass. He’s got aches and pains as old as the guy with whom he shares the top of the leaderboard.
Better still, if Couples won the Masters again, 20 years after the first time he did it, he already knows exactly what he’d do next.
“You’d never see me again,” he chuckled. “It would be a walkoff.”
Don’t laugh. Couples’ green jacket in 1992 was almost as improbable. Not because he wasn’t capable of sublime golf back then – or now, for that matter – but because of a single shot that set up the win by defying the laws of gravity.
In the final round, Couples hit an 8-iron into the par-3 12th and tucked his chin into his chest as the shot rode a breeze and began drifting to the right. The ball hit the bank in front of the green and began sliding down the slippery slope toward Rae’s Creek and the watery grave that claimed every similar shot all weekend. Somehow, his stopped, nestled up against a few blades of grass. Couples chipped up to save par and wound up winning by two. He called it “the biggest break of my life.”
Yet Couples seemed almost as mystified by what happened Friday, when he fought off two early bogeys with seven birdies and carded a 67. That left him at 5-under for the tournament, tied with 35-year-old Jason Dufner.
“I stand out there and say, ‘What the hell?’ a lot,” he laughed. “Or ‘What do I have to lose here? Or ‘Go for the flag on this shot.’”
But the higher he climbed up the leaderboard, the more cautious Couples became – or at least what passes as cautious for him.
“Once you really get cruising around,” he added, “then it becomes, ‘Play a smart shot.’”
He’s played hundreds of those over the course of 200 rounds here, enough to post 10 career top-10 finishes at the Masters but that’s not all. A moment before he walked into the interview room, someone reminded Couples he owned the best scoring average of anyone with 100 rounds or more at the tournament, including Jack Nicklaus, who won here six times. Nicklaus was 46 when he won the last time, in 1986, and Couples was on just his fourth go-round.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know the last year he played, but his scores kept going up a little bit and mine will be doing that shortly. But today,” he added, brightening, “was not one of those days.”
It’s only when Couples doffs his ballcap to reveal a full head of shaggy gray hair, or talks about gulping aspirins to quiet a chronically troublesome back, that you remember he can’t do this forever, let alone string together four solid rounds at a major anymore. Last year, Couples was seventh heading into the weekend, then faded with 72-73 and wound up tied for 15th. A half-dozen years ago, he was second heading into the final round and shot 71, finishing in a tie for third.
Couples’ strategy to conserve energy this time around was vintage Fred: He practiced less. He hit some balls on the range, played in the ceremonial par-3 tournament on Wednesday and planned to play the back nine before thunderstorms forced him to take the rest of the day off. Instead of feeling guilty, Couples took it as a good sign. He never needed an excuse to play hooky.
“Basically, I feel like I played enough,” he said. “I don’t need to wear myself out.”
Even in his prime, Couples was that way. His swing is the same, too, long and graceful, with no wasted motion. He doesn’t hit it as far as he used to – the nickname “Boom Boom” fell away years ago – but still plenty far. Then there’s the temperament. Couples reminds rivals of the guy who just put down a cocktail on the patio, picked up his clubs and wandered into the middle of the tournament.
“He’s amazing,” said Sergio Garcia, who’s part of a five-some trailing Couples and Dufner by a stroke. “He always manages to do it somehow.”
Yet the only thing hard to believe is that Couples will be able to play the last two rounds as well as he did the first two. The prospect hardly rattles him.
“I don’t feel too much stress. Now, obviously there’s stress out there and I’m not – what I’m getting at is, when you’re playing here, I’m not going to let too many things bother me. It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday. ... And if I don’t do well, you know, I leave here with the attitude of I’ll come back next year and do well.
“A lot of the tournaments I play in, at my age now – not 20 years ago – they are just golf tournaments. It’s another week of golf. And for me to be tied at this moment, it’s a little shocking, but I played a really good round of golf today.
“I have to do that tomorrow,” Couples added, “or they will just fly by me.”
Catch him if you can.
• Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.