There are questions about Fred Couples right now that not even Fred Couples can answer: questions about his back, his career, his life and his place in golf history. Not that he ever wanted a place in golf history. So when he arrived for the 77th PGA Championship last week at Riviera Country Club as a supporting actor on the Hollywood stage he once owned, a part of him liked his new role. Judging by the look on his face and his get-me-out-of-here attitude, the limelight had the feel of acid rain.
But like it or not, Couples is back in the limelight. On Monday captain Lanny Wadkins made Couples a wild-card selection to the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And with good reason. When healthy, Couples is one of the top five players in the world, and at Riviera he appeared to .be healthy and mentally recharged. A final-round 66 helped convince Wadkins that Couples was ready, and the Ryder Cup invitation was extended by telephone. "I think it's the most I've heard Fred talk," Wadkins said. "I couldn't get him off the phone."
Talk about turnarounds. When Couples skipped the British Open last month at St. Andrews, there was speculation that his latest back injury was career-threatening. Six weeks earlier Couples had sent a strong message himself when, during the Kemper Open, he indicated he was considering a five-year vacation from tournament golf. "I'd only be 40 or 41," he said. "For me to come out and make $6,000 every week, it's just not fun. I could take five years off and make $100,000 in a week if I'm healthy. I refuse to go out there and embarrass myself."
The following week, at the U.S. Open, Couples missed his third consecutive cut for the first time since 1990. He snapped at Jay Haas in the Shinnecock Hills locker room and threatened to fire caddie Joe LaCava. The outbursts were uncharacteristic of the easygoing Couples, who counts Haas and LaCava among his best friends. "If he wants to throw some heat at me, that's fine. It's part of the job," says LaCava. "The thing that bothers him the most is playing bad golf. But I don't blame it on bad golf. I blame it on a bad back."
The only person who got through to Couples was Tawnya Dodd, the woman he lives with in the north Dallas suburb of Piano. They have been together for almost three years, since Couples separated from his wife, Deborah. "I give her a lot of credit," says Couples. "If I don't play good golf, I'm miserable. But if it wasn't for her, I'd probably go bananas."
A July 12 visit to the Hughston Clinic in Columbus, Ga., changed Couples's outlook and disposition. Physical therapist Tom Boers loosened the tightness in his back during a 45-minute session. And at the Canadian Skins Game last month in Woodbridge, Ont., Couples was back to being his old self. When a photographer suggested that Couples lie on his back with his head propped on his golf bag, he was happy to oblige.
Couples was happy and relaxed because for the first time since the Nissan Open in late February, he could fly fairway bunkers with his trademark high, hard fade. He picked up $90,000 in skins game money, told Tawnya she could buy the patio furniture he had promised her and talked about his frustrations. "I've never been much of a fighter on the course, but I'm not going to play golf and not be competitive," he said. "It bothers me. I'm paired with great players. I watch them hit the ball. I hit it well about every other hole. People say my game looks pretty good, but I'm just getting the ball around. I haven't had the strength to hit the hard fade or the low two-iron. I just swing and hit the ball, and I haven't done that for 15 years. If I have a par-5 I know I can reach in two, I want to hit it as hard as I can. Sometimes I feel great and I do. There are other days when I don't have any strength."
At the Buick Open two weeks ago, Couples had enough strength and confidence to shoot 16 under and finish sixth. He might have won if not for a balky putter. Couples was using a conventional grip for the first time since late 1992, and on Sunday he missed short birdie putts on the 15th and 18th holes to finish two strokes out of a playoff. At Riviera he hit the ball well enough to contend, but his putter let him down again. On Saturday, despite making birdie on the last two holes, he only shot 74. On Sunday he was seven under through 12 holes before slipping with a pair of bogeys. This wasn't the Couples who closed out tournaments in 1992. Maybe it was rust. Maybe he never will be a dominant player again. Maybe a part of him wouldn't mind that.
When Couples ascended to the top of the golf world in 1992, the walls closed in. He won three tournaments in seven weeks, culminating with his first major, the Masters. He won the money title, the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on Tour and Player of the Year honors. But the only place he felt comfortable was inside the ropes. There nobody could ask for an autograph or an interview. He was just an athlete being an athlete. That's why, when Couples first hurt his back at Doral in 1994, many of his closest friends considered it a blessing. The injury came on the heels of his ugly divorce from Deborah, and it gave him a chance to escape.
As Couples now describes it, life had become a maze. Getting around required going through too many people who wanted a piece of him. Walking from the locker room to the courtesy car became an adventure. There were days when he would practice at another course rather than deal with the demands of stardom at the tournament site. That meant hitting old balls with driving-range stripes rather than new softcover balatas. But to Couples that was bliss. It helped him forget about those times when he would appease apparently every autograph hound, only to hear an overlooked somebody curse him for not having a third hand available as he headed to his car with his arms full.