AUGUSTA — This is Fred Couples 30th year playing in The Masters Tournament, so he has seen just about everything Augusta National Golf Club has to offer. He’s achieved the highest of highs, winning a green jacket in 1992. But he also has had his share of downers, finishing as an also ran a few times as he dealt with a tricky back. There were even two years, 2008 and 2009, when the fan favorite failed to make the cut.
“For me, it’s just a lot of fun,” Couples said on Saturday. “It feels like when I came my first year, it’s always exciting. This year is no different.”
Since missing back-to-back cuts, Couples has had a Masters renaissance. The 54-year-old has found remedies for treating his back when it barks, and he’s cut down on the amount of tournaments he plays to keep himself fresh. The results have Couples playing his best in early April at The Masters.
Not only has Couples made the cut the past four years, he’s gone into the weekend among the top 10 players on the Augusta National leaderboards. The past two years alone, Couples has either been in the lead or in second place following the first 36 holes of The Masters.
But his fountain of youth seems to have come with an expiration date. Couples has struggled on most of the recent weekends he’s played in The Masters, especially on Saturdays. The past three Saturday’s in The Masters, Couples has carded a 72, 75 and 77 to play his way out of contention – finishing 15th, 12th and 13th, respectively.
Couples played well again in the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, posting consecutive 71s to be among the leaders once again. At the start of Saturday’s round, it looked like Couples – and his legion of fans trekking across a sun-drenched Augusta National with him – experienced déjà vu. He made bogey on three of first five holes and looked like he was spiraling toward another also ran finish.
But Couples displayed his veteran savvy, as well as his extensive knowledge of the course to not only stop the bleeding, but to temporarily get back to 2-under with a run through Amen Corner and No. 14 that included three birdies. He finished the round with a respectable 73, that included a thrilling par save on No. 18.
After missing the green, he nearly chipped in for a birdie that would’ve shaken the limbs of trees still recovering from February’s ice storm. But the par definitely buoyed spirits, and at 1-under for the tournament, Couples still has an outside chance at adding another green jacket to his wardrobe.
“I’m playing pretty good golf and I have a shot (today) of shooting some silly round to maybe win, but it’s going to take a 65 or 66. But you never know,” said Couples, who was well aware of his recent troubles on Saturdays. “My average went down. I’m not smart enough to know what 75, 77 and 73 is, but it wasn’t bad. I actually – I played okay.”
Couples added that he was able to steady himself because he felt good about many of the shots he hit early, but they just ended up in the wrong place. His conviction, especially after the rough start, means he’s just four strokes behind co-leaders Jordan Spieth (71-70-70) and Bubba Watson (69-68-74). There are seven other players in between him and the leaders, and Couples holds them in high regard.
“They’re all talented and really good players,” he said, offering high praise for the youngster Spieth, who is playing so well it could conjure memories of when Couples posted four top-10 finishes at The Masters in his 20s. “He’s a special – he’s a qualified player at the age 20. So when you’re that kind of a player, you can play well anywhere. I mean he’s such a great putter. He hits the ball long and high. But for a 20 year old, you know, he’s pretty savvy. Not much bothers him.”
Couples was able to offer insight about Saturday’s rounds and what could happen today that only a veteran would know. He said the players who were close to the lead and teed off after 2 p.m. had a harder time because all of the early action and sunlight hardened up the course. He said that, combined with the pressure of so much hanging on every shot, as well as following the pace set by other players, meant that anybody who carded 70 or 71 was tough enough for the challenge of The Masters.
“(Today) you’re going to see, someone is going to come from 2-over to 3- to 4-under early in the round where maybe it’s a little softer. But the afternoon – 2:30 p.m. tee time is very, very hard,” warned Couples. “(Today) obviously, is going to be a really, really hard day to try to win this.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT Fred Couples hits from the 1st fairway during the third round at The Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., on Saturday.×
Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT Fred Couples reacts to his approach on the 15th hole during the third round at The Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., on Saturday.×