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Fred Couples feels good playing more

Fred Couples has been getting a lot of attention the last few weeks without hitting a shot.

Players celebrate with him as though he has just won a tournament. His cell phone is loaded with voice mails and text messages, and perhaps the biggest shock of all is that Couples knows how to use his phone. Remember, this is the guy who once said he doesn’t answer the phone “because someone may be on the other end.”

Why all the fuss?

Couples last week was appointed U.S. captain of the Presidents Cup, with Greg Norman leading the International side. Never mind that the matches are still 20 months away.

Lost amid this hoopla is that Couples is playing golf, a lot more than some expected he could, himself included.

A year ago, a back problem that has been pestering him since 1994 took such a nasty turn that Couples labored to play in the Masters (and tied a record by making his 23rd consecutive cut), then didn’t compete again until the silly season.

He contemplated surgery. He feared his career might be over.

But when he tees it up Thursday in the PODS Championship, it will be his fifth tournament this season, and the results have been promising. He has made the cut in all but one, has 12 out of 15 rounds at par or better and recorded one top 10.

“I feel good,” Couples said. “I played the four (tournaments), and then I went to see this guy in Waco. He said I looked better than he thought. Obviously, my goal is to play. The best I probably played was at Phoenix, and I missed the cut. And the other tournaments, I did pretty well. So I feel like I’m on track, and my goal is to really be ready for Augusta.”

The “guy in Waco” is John Patterson, a Texas back specialist whose clientele includes Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz and Houston Rockets guard Tracy McGrady.

Couples felt strong enough to spend three days with swing coach Butch Harmon in Las Vegas, and he played the Pro-Member tournament at fabled Seminole Golf Club on Monday.

He has not been to Innisbrook since 2000, when he tied for 14th, although he recalled one year having to withdraw on the fourth hole of the pro-am because his back went out. He likes the course, as most do.

The Copperhead Course is regarded as one of the strongest tests on the Florida swing, without having to change to a par 71. Mark Calcavecchia is the defending champion, after barely making the cut, shooting 62 in the third round and winning by one shot.

Honda Classic winner Ernie Els is playing, along with Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen.

Els was getting plenty of attention, too, although this was for winning last week on the PGA Tour to end an 0-for-47 drought that dates to the American Express Championship in Ireland in October 2004.

“When you’re around long enough like me, you know you’re going to have losses,” Els said. “Losses are tough. You play to win every week. When you get close, you expect to win. I had many, many times I couldn’t close the deal. So it’s really nice to get this one, and hopefully, this is a fresh start for the next couple of years.”

Also in the field is another captain—Ryder Cup skipper Paul Azinger—who is playing far less than Couples this year.

“I’ve played four rounds of golf since Phoenix,” Azinger said. “I haven’t really practiced much. I don’t know why. My desire to play well is still there, but my commitment to get it done isn’t. I’m ready to start drinking out of a bamboo cup with a pink umbrella on it.”

Azinger is trying to get out to look at some players who might be on his side at the Ryder Cup in September.

Couples can appreciate that. He is enthusiastic about trying to play 18 times this year and next, being able to see the players in the locker room, the range and on the course. And he cares about his own game, especially with the Masters on the horizon.

Couples won in 1992, a victory famous because his ball was held up by a few blades of grass as it rolled toward the water on the par-3 12th hole in the final round. Even as the course has been lengthened and strengthened, Couples has been up for it.

Despite rounds of 76-76, he made the cut on the number last year at the Masters. That tied Gary Player (1959-82) for consecutive cuts, and Couples remains the only Masters champion to have never missed the cut (Tiger Woods missed as an amateur). He could go in the record books with another four rounds in April, but that’s not on his mind.

“If the leaders are up here and the cuts are down here, I want to make sure I’m moving way up the ladder,” Couples said. “If I don’t, it will be very disappointing because I’m not there to play well. If I don’t play well and miss the cut, the streak is over, and I’ll be watching TV Saturday and Sunday. But it’s a nice thing. It’s not anything worldly.

“I’m not going to go down as the guy who made however many cuts in a row it is. I’m planning on playing well.”

That he’s playing is a start.


March 6, 2008

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