That he took personally. He tried to do his best, but he grew tired of being portrayed as a bad guy and began thinking the back injury wasn't so bad after all.
"I didn't really enjoy [the celebrity status]," Couples said. "All I wanted to do was play golf. I happened to play great for nine months, and that changed everything. I have a different lifestyle than a lot of people. I just like to be by myself. When I'm on the golf course, I'm out there by myself. I'm not out to put on a show for the 40,000 people who are watching. I didn't seek that. I just happened to play really well, and it came along with it.
"It's not much fun when you struggle, either. You still answer a lot of questions, but instead of about how you won, it's about why you played so poorly. That wears on you. Now I understand it. I fully accept a lot of the things you have to do."
His recent struggles have made him appreciate what he lost. He opened 1995 with back-to-back victories on the PGA European Tour in Dubai and in the Philippines, against strong fields on good courses. That followed an off-season during which he won just about everything. It looked like 1992 was going to happen all over again, that Couples was healthy and ready to rejoin the fray atop golf's heap. But with one swing of a seven-iron on the 17th hole at the Nissan at Riviera in late February, all that changed. Couples felt the twinge, withdrew from the first two events in Florida and lost all his momentum. "This year," he admits, "has kind of been a waste."
A pairing with Don Pooley at the Motorola Western Open in early July might help him salvage something out of '95. Pooley, no stranger to back pain, suggested that Couples visit the Hughston Clinic. At the time, Couples shrugged the suggestion off. "We were on the 5th hole," he recalled. "I said, 'Don, I can't feel any better than I'm feeling right now.' By the 14th hole, I about had to crawl in."
Couples has disk problems, but surgery is avoidable. Yet, when he skipped the British (at Boers's suggestion), concerns about the severity of the injury increased. "Yeah, I'm worried about Freddie," Raymond Floyd said at St. Andrews. "It's unfortunate to see a world-class player go through what he's going through." Added Ben Crenshaw, "He's at a crossroads."
The truth was, Couples had never felt better. He wanted to be in Scotland, and he second-guessed his decision not to go. But instead of walking the hard fairways of St. Andrews, Couples was practicing and playing out of a golf cart in Dallas. And at the Canadian Skins, Crenshaw and Nick Price saw things in Couples that they hadn't seen since February. One was a smile.
"Maybe the time away was something he needed," says Price. "Maybe he got back his desire and intent to play. Now he's ready. You can see that he's very focused."
And when Couples is healthy and focused, does anybody make the game look easier? "When he's playing well, he makes it look ridiculously easy," says Crenshaw. "His thought processes are clear, he executes distinctively, he's not bogged down by a bunch of technical stuff, and he's got an exquisite touch. It's amazing people don't sense that in him, because he's got the softest hands in the world around the green. He can do wonderful things, and he seems positive. But only time will tell."
Yes, time will tell with Couples. Since winning the 1992 Masters, he has finished in the top 10 in only two of 12 majors and has won just two PGA Tour events. Last week's PGA at Riviera was the first major in three years at which he wasn't the highest ranked A
American on the Sonys. The Ryder Cup looms. And the questions just keep getting tougher.