"You can't not like Freddy," says pro Mark O'Meara. "There's nobody out here like him. I think guys are just happy he hasn't realized how good he is."
Couples may not know how good he is, but he does know he wants to fend off the responsibilities of being a businessman for as long as possible. "I just want to act my age," he says. "I don't think you should try to act older." So far, no one has accused him of being executive material. "I don't always plan ahead real well," he admits. He forgot his passport on the way to the British Open this year and had to fly back from Chicago to Los Angeles to get it. He has pulled out of a few tournaments at the last minute. Mostly, though, Couples's ways are a source of amusement on the tour.
Practice rounds for the hang-loose foursome of Couples, Dan Pohl, Tom Purtzer and Jay Haas—the first three are statistically the longest drivers on the tour over the last five years—are informal affairs that sometimes deteriorate into trick-shot contests. And when no gallery is around, Couples can ham it up. His specialty is the "space rocket slice," performed best on par-3s. He tees the ball on a pencil so he can catch it on the upswing, takes a full cut with a driver and steps back as the ball does a soaring right turn before plummeting to the green. "You ought to see that thing back up when it hits," says O'Meara.
Even during a tournament round, Couples might try to cut a three-iron when everyone else is hitting two clubs less. "Fred thinks of himself as an athlete," says Strickler. "He manipulates the ball just to keep from getting bored." Of course, it's possible that Couples is really up to something important, like countering the constant tension that can slowly suffocate even the toughest pro. His approach seems to pay off when the tension is highest. Couples's scoring average in the fourth round the last four years is 71.28, putting him in the top 10% among all pros. And his two victories came in pressure cookers you wouldn't wish on the average young pro.
At the Kemper in June of '83, Couples, T.C. Chen and Scott Simpson shambled along in a five-hour fiasco of foozled shots and three-putt greens that has been dubbed "The Longest Day." Yet on the second hole in the playoff, Couples shrugged off a whole afternoon of choking ("I don't know, I just got very relaxed," he says), struck a perfect five-iron to within two feet and sank the putt to win it.
Couples started the fourth round of the 1984 TPC with a two-shot lead, playing in the last group with Watson and Ballesteros. The margin was down to one after Couples bogeyed the 7th. But just when everyone thought he would turn to tapioca, Couples hit a two-iron to within 18 inches of the 8th hole for a birdie. He made another birdie at the 9th, and the two superstars fell away. Says a duly impressed Ballesteros: "Fred has a very strong game, but the most important thing about him, he is very cool. Nothing bothers him."
It's a good thing, because a close look at Couples's swing—he's had it since his boyhood in Seattle—makes purists blanch. "It's the way a 12-year-old would swing it if you handed him a club," says Dave Williams, his coach at the University of Houston. Says Watson, "Fred's mechanics aren't perfect, but he has great rhythm. Great rhythm can overcome a lot of little flaws."
Couples is relaxed—what else—at address, although one quickly notices the caddie-yard grip that would seem to invite a hook. His takeaway is smooth and his shoulder turn enormous, but—oops—at the top of his swing the club is pointing 30 yards to the right of his target. But on the downswing he quickly drops the club into the classic position and proceeds to give the ball a full hit with the right side. He finishes with the hands on, not above, his left shoulder. "I don't do impressions of Fred Couples because I don't want to break my back," says Peter Jacobsen, the tour's Rich Little.
Even before he grew to his current 5'11", 185 pounds, Couples was capable of hitting the ball astonishing distances. And before he cut back his swing slightly after suffering some lower-back pain in his second year on tour, he was longer than he is now. His former Houston teammate Jim Nantz recalls a tournament in Tyler, Texas in which Couples drove through the fairway and out of bounds on a 410-yard par-4 with a sharp dogleg right. "Fred walked back to the tee, teed the ball on a pencil and launched it over the trees," Nantz remembers. "About 10 seconds later we hear all this cheering from the green. The ball was 20 feet from the hole. Of course, Fred made it. Easy par."
It wouldn't be simplistic to say that life itself has been pretty easy for Couples. In a happy sports-oriented boyhood in the footsteps of his father and older brother, both of whom played pro baseball, Fred got serious about golf at age 11 and made Seattle's Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course his second home.