It's silent on this cool December day as Fred Couples, driver in hand, steps to the tee before a modest pro-am gallery. His smooth backswing does nothing to disrupt the calm, although it does convey a powerful sense of leverage. There is quick movement and—crack!—a tiny, hissing comet rises against the Florida sky, its head hanging above the middle of the fairway for a long moment as the tail slowly disappears. When the illusion finally fades, a golf ball has come to rest 310 yards away, and the gallery is gazing in wonder.
Father Eric Peters smiles. "Tremendous, Fred, magnificent," he says as the nonchalant Couples strolls toward the ball. Before following, Peters says to a companion, "You know, there is so much beauty in the world."
Father Peters, a 32-year-old Catholic priest, is probably the world's biggest Fred Couples fan, even though he has seen him play only twice in person. "I guess I just appreciate God-given talent," Peters says. He also admires Couples's tranquil manner, noting, "Fred obviously has a deep inner peace." Like any golf fan, Peters is a sucker for a handsome, athletic kid who can hit the ball off the world, who would rather try to nail a seven-iron 200 yards over a stand of sequoias than chip back into the fairway, who has great touch around the greens and who regularly raps five-footers into the back of the cup.
Of course, even Peters would admit that most golf fans know Couples best not for his shotmaking gifts but for the running straddle-jump his energetic wife, Deborah, planted on him after he had won the 1983 Kemper Open in a five-way playoff. Still, it's fairly common knowledge that Couples is the fresh-faced slugger who beat Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros in the 1984 Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla. But few besides Peters could tell you that the 25-year-old Couples has amassed more than $700,000 in his four years on the PGA Tour. Or that he ranked seventh on the money list in '84, with $334,573. Or that he finished in the top 10 in the '84 Masters and the U.S. and British opens.
For his part, Couples is not too crazy about what goes with being a rising star. If he were, he would have scratched and clawed to become the leading money-winner—he was second on the list as late as June—instead of putting his game in what his caddie, Linn Strickler, calls "cruise control" and sitting out 15 of the last 27 tournaments. And he wouldn't have downplayed his long tee shots, which averaged 276.3 yards, No. 2 on the tour to rookie Bill Glasson, who hit 'em 276.5 yards.
"Everybody is wooing Fred," says his agent, John Lynch, who walks the fine line between protecting Couples from distractions and making sure his client doesn't totally ignore the pot of gold being thrust at him. So far, Couples has commercial affiliations with Wilson and with LaQuinta (Calif.) Country Club, though there is talk that his ruddy features, thick brown mane and broad shoulders may soon appear in an ad as part of a six-figure endorsement package. "Fred is different from most of the players," Lynch says. "He just doesn't care that much about money. And for a guy with his talent, he is almost entirely without ego."
It's true. Trying to get Couples to say something even marginally brash about his remarkable game is like waiting around a par-3 for someone to score a hole in one. "Talking about myself to someone—it's hard to do," he says haltingly. "I've seen other guys way up there say how great they were playing, and now they aren't up there anymore. I'm an everyday person, and I just want to keep an even keel."
Not that Couples lacks confidence. "You have to be cocky, in a way," he says. "But I'm not into shaking my fist after a good shot or anything. I do it inside myself. I say, 'Hey, that was good.' "
Couples is sitting on a couch in a rented condominium in Largo, Fla. after his last golf round of '84. He and Jan Stephenson, the defending champions, have finished tied for 25th in the J.C. Penney Mixed Team Championship, and he missed a three-footer on the last hole. Couples looked less than pleased after signing his scorecard, though he brightened appreciably after leaving the clubhouse. "For me, staying around the golf course is bad, whatever I shoot," he says. "I need to get away so I can start fresh."
Couples has become one of the top 10 or 15 players in the world with a public-course swing that he practices just enough to loosen up and an attitude that seems to say, "C'mon, guys, what's all the fuss about?"