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They say you can't have everything. Fred Couples has wealth, looks, the best walk in golf and a swing that will not quit. Okay, so he's not a great short putter. If Couples were better at the little ones, Phil Mickelson might have been the first person to congratulate Fred for winning his second green jacket, instead of the other way around. � Jack Nicklaus won his final major at Augusta 20 years ago at age 46, and all last week, as Couples was denting flagsticks, people were wondering whether another 46-year-old could win golf's most luscious event. "The only similarity between Jack Nicklaus and me is that he was 46 and I'm 46 now," Couples said after finishing in a five-way tie for third, three shots back. He still has that unrushed voice and a way of wording things that makes him sound like a cross between Yogi Berra and Jeff Spicoli. � Nicklaus at 46 was considered an old man, and his swing was starting to shorten. Couples is thinner now than when he won his only major, in '92. He's longer than Phil with the driver, nips the iron shots like a sure-handed pickpocket and generally lag putts well. Unfortunately for Fred, stroke-play rules require the ball to finish in the hole. There was no FedEx Reliability Zone in Nicklaus's day, but the throw-up zone has been around forever, and Big Jack was a rock in it, while Boom Boom is not. Still, Couples tied for third at last year's British Open at the Old Course. He's been playing more of late--always in the sparkly events--and has frequently been getting in the mix. Still, between now and the British Open the only events he'll play for sure are the Memorial, Westchester and the U.S. Open. Whenever he plays, spectators, reporters and TV cameras look at him not as a museum piece, but as a guy who's still relevant. � It's a good bet he'll be on the Ryder Cup team in September, making it on points or as a captain's pick. (He's 13th on the points list now, and the top 10 automatically make the 12-man team.) Among other qualities, he's one of the best hang-out guys in the game. He knows the AL pitching matchups and is above-average in Foosball. � Couples revealed a deep truth when he shut down any comparisons between him and Jack. At 46, Nicklaus had been married to Barbara Nicklaus for 26 years, and they had five kids and were ensconced in a big house at Lost Tree in North Palm Beach, Fla., with a driveway crowded with balls and bikes. Couples loves kids and playing games with them, just like Jack, but his life never took root that way.
His first marriage, to the flamboyant Deborah Couples, ended in divorce in 1993, and she took her own life in 2001. He became engaged to Tawnya Dodd during the '95 Ryder Cup, but they never married. In '98 he married Thais Bren, and through last year he listed her two children from a previous marriage as his own in the PGA Tour media guide. But in the '06 guide there's no family reference in Couples's biography, and he and Thais are now going through a divorce. In his years on Tour, Couples has lived in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Dallas; Los Angeles; and Santa Barbara, Calif.
To his chagrin he's had more success in golf's off-season cash grabs than in the game's most important events. A balky back cost him more starts than his balky putter cost him wins. His parents died relatively young, and at different times he has turned different Tour elders such as Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson into role models. Inside the ropes Couples has always made it look easy, but we don't see the half of it. Asked about his easygoing demeanor, Couples says, "It's not easy if you ride in the car home with me." Especially after missing five putts of six feet or less, as he did on Sunday. But all the while he kept gliding down the fairways, occasionally throwing his cleft chin in the direction of a yelped "Fred-dee!"
Couples and Mickelson were chitchatting (Fred's word) around the course in the final round, having a good time. "He was standing up there and smoking those two drivers he has and I was hitting it with him and we were laughing about that," Couples said. They're friendly, and Mickelson's longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, and Couples's longtime caddie, Joe LaCava, are very close. At some Tour stops Couples, LaCava, MacKay and Davis Love III and his caddie, John (Cubby) Burke, are a regular fivesome at strip-mall Italian restaurants. Whether Couples is waiting for a car or is on the driving range or in the clubhouse, you almost never see him alone. Last week his teacher, Butch Harmon, watched him hit hundreds of shots. Couples practices more now than he did 20 years ago.
At 14 on Sunday, Couples gave what he called one of his "putting exhibitions." He had a four-footer for birdie to get within a shot of Mickelson, and he missed that and the one after it, a five-footer for par. On the 15th tee Mickelson had a three-shot lead over Couples, and Fred's tournament was over. For the four rounds only three players, Rich Beem, Robert Allenby and Sergio Garc�a, took more putts than the 125 Couples needed. Mickelson needed only 116. Couples said that if Mickelson had been putting for him, he might've won by two or three shots. A wild understatement. "I didn't hit the ball like I was 46," Couples said, "but I putted like I was 66."
Couples has been using a belly putter, with his hands close together and the butt end in his stomach, for about five years. Sometimes he places the right hand low, which is the conventional way for a righty, but more often he puts the left hand low. He takes the putter head on a slightly outside path on the backswing, as he does with his regular swing, which should promote a pull, but somehow he still often shoves it right. It's not a yippy stroke, but it's also not a you-will-die-today-Bond stroke that helps men win major championships and Ryder Cup matches, although Couples did look awfully good while defeating Vijay Singh in singles at the last Presidents Cup.
Part of Couples's appeal is that he's manly in the best sense of the word. He plays without a glove, rings, watch or arthritis bracelet. You see his two bare, tanned hands on a golf club and you think of those old pictures of Mickey Mantle holding a bat, the Mick's fingernails in the pine tar. Couples is not trying to hide his silver hair or his bad putting, and when he nails one off the tee he'll tell you he "hit it a mile." If there's heartache in his private life, it doesn't show up in his play. He's at the point in his career at which he can play well only on the courses he loves, and no one should be surprised if he contends in the U.S. Open in June, at man-sized Winged Foot.
But his favorite course is Augusta National, and what he did last week was pretty close to his best, yet it wasn't enough. He was the picture of grace with Mickelson and the press and his fans. And then he and four others rode off in his big white Cadillac, headed for home. Home for the week, anyway.