AUGUSTA — A lot can change in 20 years. When Fred Couples won the Masters in 1992, he wasn’t 52, wasn’t ending interviews with, “OK, I have to go now, my back hurts,” wasn’t like one of those old guys in “Cocoon,” peering into the mystical waters of the swimming pool and dreaming of doing a swan dive back to youth.
Also, Rory McIlroy was 2 years old.
But Augusta National has long been a magical place for Couples. He shares the Masters record with Gary Player for making 23 consecutive cuts. Injuries finally ended that streak. But in 2010 he was back and, at age 50, he shot a 66 in the opening round and finished sixth.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Youth has no age.”
Couples said Friday, “I feel like I’m very young when I get here.”
That was apparent again Friday. Nine years removed from his last Tour win, Couples wasn’t merely the oldest player to make the cut at the Masters, he also shot the day’s best round at 5 under.
Time to celebrate. Which way to Shoney’s?
After going bogey-par to start the day, Couples birdied five of his next seven holes, ended the day with a share of the lead with Jason Dufner and allowed him to dream of Sunday the way we dream of a winning MegaMillions ticket.
When asked later, off stage, how he believed people would judge his career if he won the Masters at 52, Couples said, “Well, they probably would never see me again, so they can judge me any way [they want]. It would be a walk off. I’m dead serious. What a way to go?”
Will it happen?
Then again, why not?
Tom Watson was 59 when he nearly won the British Open in 2009, losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Couples is seven years younger and at least as capable.
He walks on to greens at Augusta National like most people walk into their living room. Can he keep up with Phil Mickelson or McIlroy off the tee? No. “But I do know this course pretty well, and I’ve had a lot of success here,” he said.
Couples, who is the oldest second-round leader in Masters history, went on to say, “I don’t feel too much stress. Now, obviously there’s stress out there. [But] what I’m getting at is I’m not going to let too many things bother me. It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday. But I do like the place.”
He seemed at one Friday with every manicured blade of grass. He hit out of a bunker on the third hole to within four feet of the cup for an easy birdie putt. He read the ninth green perfectly, uphill and straight, and rolled it in from 35 feet. On 16, he sank a 20-foot putt for another birdie.
“If anything, I know the greens better than most because I’ve played 150 rounds of golf here,” Couples said.
Nonetheless, he referred to his round as “shocking” and “really amazing” and even “a little bizarre.”
He still takes pain blockers for his back. He didn’t play in the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday because he was concerned about wearing himself down, planned to get in some practice afterward, but then the storm came and chased players and fans off the course.
“That decision backfired,” he said.
But he shot par Thursday and found a groove Friday. His age might have actually been a benefit.
“I stand out there and say, ‘What the hell’ a lot,” he said. “‘What do I have to lose here? Go for the flag on this shot.’”
In the 1992 Masters, Couples shot a 67 in the second round, same as this year. That day included a memorable tee shot on 12 that landed on the grassy bank and stuck, defying gravity by not rolling into Rae’s Creek. That allowed him to make par and win by two strokes over Raymond Floyd. It was his first and only win in a major.
Couples referenced Watson’s British Open, saying, “Even though he lost, it was still the greatest feat I’ve ever seen.”
But this would come pretty close. Can he win?
“Yeah, I believe I can,” he said.
Everybody into the pool.
By Jeff Schultz