Why do we love Fred Couples? The answer used to be so easy. Easy like Couples's languid swing, his laid-back cool or the way he sets certain segments of the gallery to swooning with his good looks. In 1992 Couples even won a Masters the easy way, Velcroing a ball to the bank above Rae's Creek on the 12th hole of the final round, an outrageous defiance of the laws of gravity, not to mention Augusta National. For Couples, life had always been a gimme, a fascinating prospect to the rest of us.
Beginning in March 1994, though, Couples's carriage turned into a pumpkin. Since "the grenade went off" in Couples's back (his imagery) on the driving range before the last round of that year's Doral-Ryder Open, he has not been the same player. Heading into this season, Couples had won only twice since the injury, a depressing downturn for the Tour's third alltime money winner. Life away from golf has left its scar tissue too with a divorce and a broken engagement both played out in public. Last year was the most wrenching yet: Couples lost his father to leukemia on Thanksgiving Day, and his girlfriend, Thais Bren, was found to have breast cancer. Overwhelmed with caring for his loved ones, Couples played in only 15 events, the fewest of his career, and finished 55th on the money list, his third-poorest showing in 17 years on Tour.
Couples's talent has never been questioned, but his desire often has, and whether he would right himself in the face of such adversity was one of the big questions going into this season. At last week's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., Couples provided a definitive answer as he shot a sizzling 28 under par for five rounds and then trumped Bruce Lietzke on the first hole of a playoff. The performance was one of the most compelling of Couples's career, and it presented his many fans with an entirely new Fred Couples to love, one who is world-weary and hell-bent on grinding out success as he heads into the final phase of his life in golf.
"This is not the greatest win I have ever had, but it was a great time to win," Couples said of his 13th Tour victory. "It wasn't a big deal to me how I played last year. This year it's a huge deal. This proved to me that I can still win, and I plan on winning more tournaments. I plan on having a great year."
Says Bren, "I know '98's going to be a great year because there can't ever be another one like '97." Couples and Bren met last March around the time of the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, where Bren lives with her two children. Couples's season was off to a flying start at that point—the Nissan was his third top 10 finish in as many tournaments. Perhaps because of his father's condition, Couples was particularly concerned about an offhand comment Bren had made regarding her health. "I had been suspicious for a while that something might be wrong, but I was told not to worry, that I was healthy," she says. "Fred was the one who really encouraged me to get a proper diagnosis. He told me that I had to be sure."
Couples was with Bren when she received the grim news. They had been dating for little more than two weeks. "She said, 'You don't need this. You can be with a healthy woman,' " Couples said at last year's British Open, the first time he spoke publicly of Bren's condition. "I didn't feel that way at all. I'm not going to spend all my life playing golf and going back to the room alone."
Couples began shuttling between L.A., his father's house in Seattle and his own home in Dallas. That left little time for the Tour, and during one 13-week stretch from March to June he played in only three tournaments. It was just as well because being between the ropes offered little respite. "I was thinking about other things every single round I played last year," says Couples. "There were rounds when all I wanted to do was get it over with and get out of there. The golf felt so unimportant."
The feeling was even more acute during a bittersweet summer as Bren continued her recovery (she is now, in her words, "100) percent fine") and Tom Couples became increasingly ill. "There were a lot of good days because my girlfriend was getting better," Fred says, "but how happy could I be because at the same time my dad was getting worse."
Couples had been introduced to the game by his father, who worked in Seattle's parks and recreation department, but Tom Couples's love was baseball, not golf. He had knocked around the minor leagues, just as Fred's older brother, Tom, would. "My dad didn't give me a lot of advice about golf," says the 38-year-old Couples. "When I used to call him, he'd always have only one thing to say: ' Jesus Christ, you're not playing enough. Get out there and play some better golf, would ya.' "
It is something of a paradox that Tom Couples is going to get his wish this year. In addition to limiting his '97 schedule of official events, Couples missed the numerous Silly Season exhibitions he usually feasts on (hence his nickname, Mr. November). In fact, from the Las Vegas Invitational at the end of October until the Hope, Couples hardly touched a club. The time off was great for his arthritic back. According to Couples he has a degenerative condition that cannot improve, not even through surgery. "I wake up in the morning, and I walk like a 60-year-old man," he says. "My back bothers me whether I shoot 64 or 104. If Casey Martin gets a cart, I'm next in line."