Couples did the badge one better in the third round with a 69, but he was still one shot behind the leader, Australia's Craig (Popeye, for his forearms) Parry. Not enough, Americans fretted. And, in fact, by the third hole on Sunday, Couples was losing ground. He started like a B player in the Elks Club tournament. He smother-hooked drives oil' numbers 1 and 2 and had to scramble for a par and a bogey. Meanwhile, Parry, his playing partner, had gone par, birdie. Suddenly, Couples was three strokes behind Parry.
But between number 3 and the Miracle at Rae's Creek, Couples stomped back. He thumped a nine-iron to within the length of a putter grip on number 3 for a birdie. After a bogey at number 5, he sand-saved par on number 7, dunked a 25-foot no-hoper on 8 for a birdie, curled in an 18-footer for birdie on 9 and salvaged par on 10 out of a hideous bunker. By the time he reached the 12th, he had a three-shot lead and was almost taking complete breaths.
However, the 12th at Augusta dines regularly on final-day three-shot leads. (See, especially, Gary Player, 1962.) And the 12th particularly eats up the kind of deadhead shot Couples struck there on Sunday: He aimed straight at the pin near the sloping front of the green instead of shooting at the fat of the green, the way anybody with any sense would have. "I didn't want to [shoot for the pin]," he said later, ''but there's this thing in my brain that just shoved the ball over there."
The ball landed halfway up the bank, eight feet from the front of the green, and started to roll back, just as every ball before it had done. Just as first-round leader Lanny Wadkins's ball had done on Saturday. That one rolled back into the water the way all of them had. making Wadkins drop and hit another one into the drink, making Wadkins drop and hit another one, which finally reached the green, making Wadkins finish with an 8, making Wadkins throw the damn ball in the pond to join its treasonous brethren. Wadkins does not have to take that sort of thing from golf balls.
Anyway, as Couples's ball rolled toward its certain bath, perhaps it saw something. Another Maxfli sat in the water not six inches from the bank. Perhaps Couples's ball thought of its future and did not want to end up in a barrel of lake balls in some pro shop, on sale three for a dollar. If the ball had rolled in, Couples would most likely have made a double bogey 5, and his three-shot lead would have been cut to one. Instead, the ball inexplicably stopped about a foot from doom.
When a relieved Couples stepped up to it—gingerly—he hit a simple pitch to within gimme range. This day was Couples's. He made his par.
From there it was a walk in the park—Central Park maybe. He sprayed his tee shots, birdied neither of the par 5s (numbers 13 and 15) and made only one more birdie (on 14) down the homestretch. Parry, though, was nothing to worry about. He unraveled like a cheap sweater. After three-putting three times in a row to finish with a 78, Parry blamed part of his troubles on devilish types in the crowd. "On the third hole," he said, "I heard somebody coughing on my backswing." Hey, Deborah, next time take a Luden's.
Only one man stood in Couples's way now, the very man who had tutored him over the past two years, the man who had taught him that "when you have a lead, get more of a lead," the man who had steeled Couples's eye and hardened his heart during a triumphant Ryder Cup pairing—Floyd. Floyd got to within a shot of the lead with a birdie at number 15, but Couples replied with that birdie on number 14. Only when Couples's three-wood on 18 caught a fairway bunker was there the slightest hint of a playoff, but the unrushable Couples swept a seven-iron cleanly out and onto the green.
Happiness is needing only to three-putt to win the Masters. Couples lagged a 25-footer 24 feet, 10 inches. Tap. He earned $270,000, putting himself over $1 million in prize money for the year. And it wasn't even tax day yet.
Couples is now the most dominant phenom since Johnny Miller in the early 1970s, and the proof was evident at Augusta. Watson once said great players "learn that they don't need to play their best golf to win. They only need to shoot the lowest score." That was Couples's week: His floor was the field's ceiling.