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Steady Freddie
Gary Van Sickle
June 08, 1998
Nonchalantly adding to a monster year, Fred Couples made winning the Memorial look easy
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June 08, 1998

Steady Freddie

Nonchalantly adding to a monster year, Fred Couples made winning the Memorial look easy

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Fields of Dreams
This year David Duval (left) played in Jack Nicklaus's Memorial but skipped the other two Tour events hosted by golf icons: Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational and the Byron Nelson Classic. Still, as the chart below shows, when it comes to attracting top players from the World Ranking, Arnie was the King.

TOURNAMENT

FIELD

TOP 10

TOP 50

TOP 100

Bay Hill

120

7

33

53

Nelson

156

6

23

46

Memorial

104

7

26

53

His place in golf history is assured, and the joint had better have a big-screen TV and a remote, or Fred Couples will not be happy. No, Couples is not the greatest player of all time. What he is, is the coolest. Probably only Johnny Miller belongs on the same shelf in the refrigerator. When Couples earned the job as the world's No. 1 player in 1992, he quickly discovered that he didn't want it. Now that's cool.

Couples, 38, has settled for being one of the better players among a pretty good group of golfers his age. Now that he's happy and reasonably healthy (for a guy with a back that needs more maintenance than a '74 Fiat, anyway), he has also become a recycled candidate for best U.S. player. That slot had been ceded to one of the Generation Next golfers—David Duval, Justin Leonard or Tiger Woods—but since Couples beat all of them on his way to an impressive four-stroke victory last week in the Memorial Tournament, his second win this year and the 14th of his career, consider that title up for grabs.

In addition to his wins, Couples has also had several close calls this season—seconds at the Masters and the Nelson and a third in Houston. They made his 17-under-par blistering of Muirfield Village Golf Club, in suburban Columbus, Ohio, seem less surprising. "Fred was due to blow one out," said Davis Love III, who was three shots behind Couples going into the final round and wound up tied for fifth, seven strokes back. "He's enjoying playing again, and he's playing well. When he gets his confidence, he's very hard to beat. It's been a long time since he has played like this for a stretch of tournaments."

Part of what makes Couples seem so cool is that when he's playing well, he makes the game look effortless. Last week he eagled both of the par-5s on the back nine on the first day, hit 16 greens in regulation during both of the weekend rounds and on Sunday never made a putt longer than four feet yet shot 69 despite two storm delays and tough conditions. "He has played well since Day One this year," says Joe LaCava, Couples's caddie. "He's in a groove."

Couples is not the same player who struggled through the last three or four seasons, distracted and burdened. Neither is he the smooth superstar who looked unbeatable in the spring of '92. "I think I can play as well at 38 as I did at 32," Couples says. "I had one great year. People keep trying to get me back [to 1992], and, you know, it's not easy to do. I've had a great two months, but two months does not make a good year."

Since winning the '92 Masters, Couples has been divorced, exited one serious relationship and entered another, and lost both his parents to cancer, all while playing with a chronic back disorder. Not only was golf not fun anymore, nothing else was either. He entered '98 with his personal problems finally behind him and won his first start, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "My golf is better because my life is better," says Couples.

Just as his comeback reaches a peak, Couples is curtailing his schedule. The only tournaments he plans to play for the rest of the year are the three remaining majors, the NEC World Series of Golf, the Las Vegas Invitational and the Tour Championship. Why so few appearances? "Because too much is not good for me," he says. "This is my third week in a row, and I'm exhausted. Some guys play five weeks, take a week off, then play five more. I'm done after three. I've practiced and played pretty hard the last few months, and it's paid off. Physically, I just can't play that much."

Couples flew in his back specialist, Dr. Tom Boers, from Columbus, Ga., for some stretching and manipulation sessions last week. Boers also works with Love, who was paired with Couples in the final twosome on Sunday. Love's back got so bad after his consecutive victories in April, in the MCI Classic and then in a tournament in Japan, that he took three weeks off during which he didn't touch a club, focusing instead on back-strengthening exercises that Boers recommended. The Memorial was Love's first start since Japan. "If this was any other tournament, I probably wouldn't be here," he said. "You don't want to miss Jack's tournament or Arnold's or Byron's. My leg was dragging the last 18 in Japan, but I've made progress. I'm 75 percent better than I was."

Love arrived at Muirfield Village with no expectations and was pleasantly surprised when he opened with a 66. A second-round 73 was a setback, but another 66 got him in the final pairing with his old World Cup partner. Maybe it was Sunday's winds, his back acting up or the lack of practice catching up with him, but Love couldn't make a run at Couples.

No one put much pressure on Couples in the final round, although the leader board was full of big names. Jim Furyk, who was second to Tom Watson the week before at the Colonial, birdied three of the first five holes and shot 68. The trouble was, he was seven strokes behind going into the round. A quadruple-bogey 7 on the 16th hole on the first day was the obvious blemish on his week. "Stuff like that shouldn't happen, but that won't be the only quad of my career," said Furyk, who finished fourth, six shots behind Couples. "I had to forget about it on Thursday night. Guys like Fred and Davis and David aren't the land you want to chase. They're explosive and can birdie eight or nine holes in a day. I played with Fred the first two days in Dallas [at the Nelson]. He was seven under par and easily could have been 14 under. He didn't finish like he wanted to there, but great players come back and win the next one, like he did."

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