"Do you feel 49?" Floyd was asked.
"I don't know what 49 is supposed to feel like," he said with a grin as wide as a bunker rake. "I feel good. If you're supposed to feel real good, then, yeah, I feel 49."
At Augusta "excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors," Bobby Jones wrote. Club officials even print Jones's words on every pairing sheet. Yet each time Couples swung a golf club last week, that dictum took a serious whomping. Couples arrived as the man who could save U.S. golf from the Ians and the Josés and the Bernhards, and the crowd roared with his every fidget. After all, an American hadn't won the Masters since Lary Mize did so in 1987.
With victories at the L.A. Open and the Nestle Invitational earlier this year, Couples arrived at Augusta as the first American ever to rise to No. 1 in the Sony Rankings, which were instituted in 1986, and as the No. 1 money winner on the Tour this year. What's more, since last summer's U.S. Open he had finished among the top six in a chilling 19 of the 24 tournaments he had played and had won five of them. Here, finally, was Chip Hilton in a visor.
All Couples hadn't done was win a major championship. If he could do that, golf might start thinking about giving him Tom Watson's old locker. If he never did, he would get thrown in the heap over there with Tom Kite and the rest of the very good players who got off the bus one stop short of greatness.
Could Couples overcome the tainted image—great swing, no drive—that had dogged him for so long? This is a man who once said that he does not answer the telephone at home because "there might be someone on the other end." When destiny finally called, would Couples let the answering machine get it?
"He's got one step left," said Floyd more than once during Masters week, "and that's to win the major championships. Believe me, he will win major championships."
Couples looked to be on his way to doing that after shooting 69 and 67 in the first two rounds, which left him one stroke off the lead. "Are you happy with where you stand?" somebody asked Couples during his press conference on Friday night. He gave his usual meandering reply while his wife, Deborah, answered the question out of the corner of her mouth in the back of the room.
"Oh, nooooo," she said. "We thought we should be 13 strokes ahead by now. Having every single person we've seen the last four weeks hollering at Fred, 'Get the green!' hasn't been any pressure on Fred at all. No, sir. We should be miles ahead."
Couples's fast start nonetheless prompted his old University of Houston dormmate Jim Nantz, who was anchoring CBS's Masters telecast, to take Couples aside and say, "Shoot your badge number twice more, and you'll be wearing the jacket." The number: 70.