HE’S STILL LOOSE, laid-back and easy going, and his golf swing remains sweet and pure despite a bad back and the relentless passage of time. But, my goodness, Fred Couples, you’re 52 years old. What are you doing sharing the lead in the 76th Masters?
“Very shocking,” he said, “and it was a great day.”
Great day? His performance Friday was more than that. It was spectacular. He chalked up seven birdies en route to a 5-under-par 67 over Augusta National’s rain-soaked course that played longer than its 7,435 yards, and wheeled his way into position to become golf’s oldest major champion.
That — the oldest major champion — might be premature halfway through the tournament, but don’t dismiss his chances lightly. He is young again. Although gray curls spill from beneath his cap, he is the dashing Freddie of a generation ago, and his clubs sing a lovely serenade.
If you thought the New York Mets of 1969 had a monopoly on “Amazing,” you’re wrong. At the very least, Couples deserves to share the adjective.
His Friday plan: hit the ball solid “and not try to do a whole lot of crazy things ... and I did and made a few putts and ended up shooting lower than I thought.”
In fact, he shot lower than anyone Friday.
“Five under was an incredible round, a very good round,” he said. “I know Phil (Mickelson) just birdied 18 for 4-under (on the day) and Sergio (Garcia) is behind me (also 4 under for the round) ... and there was a lot going on out there. For me to be part of it, it’s really amazing. I’m very thrilled with the way I played today.”
He should be.
He’s been here before. He won the champion’s green jacket 20 years ago, in 1992, and he chased Marek O’Meara (1998) and Phil Mickelson (2006) to the wire in pursuit of another addition to his wardrobe.
Still, 52 years old and posting the best score of the day on a day that started cold and raw? That’s the stuff of Nicklaus in 1986. Only better. That’s Julius Boros in walking away with the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.
“I feel like I’m very young when I get here,” he said. “A lot of tournaments, you play and you drag a little bit. ... At my age now, they’re just golf tournaments. But not the Masters. And for me to be tied at this moment, it’s a little shocking. But I played a really good round of golf today.”
His round did not start that way; he bogeyed the first hole. But soon he began to sizzle. He attacked the pins and made three birdie putts of four feet or less on the front nine. He also made long ones, and his 35-foot bomb on the ninth suggested his day could indeed be special.
Couples saved his round with what he called an unbelievable up-and-down for par on 11, then birdied 15 and 16 to put the finishing touches on a special day.
“I missed the green to the right and the ball went behind the bunker,” he said in recounting his adventure on No. 11. “The pin was tucked way in the back right and I flipped it up over the bunker to about six or eight feet and made it for par. That was a huge putt.”
At that moment, his legion of fans at Augusta National began to really believe.
Rory McIlroy, the player many believe is most likely to succeed on Sunday, said that Couples in a share of the lead should not be shocking.
“I mean, he always seems to play well here,” said McIlroy, who was 2 years old when Couples outdueled Raymond Floyd in the 1992 Masters. “He still has the length to play this golf course and I think the more times you come back, the more comfortable you feel.
“Freddie has a lot of experience here and he still has the game to do well. He just adds spice to the weekend.”
The spice he adds could make what is shaping up as one of the best Masters ever even more memorable.
“I feel like I can get it round and figure out how to shoot a score on this course,” said Couples, who posted the same 36-hole score a year ago but stood seventh and trailed McIlroy by five strokes.
Still, one questioner wondered: “You know 52-year-olds are not meant to win majors; does that ever occur to you or do you figure, ‘What the (heck)’?”
Couples laughed and said, “I do stand out there and say, ‘What the (heck)’ a lot. ‘What do I have to lose here? Go for the flag on this shot.’ But once you really get cruising around, then it becomes, ‘Play a smart shot.’ ”
Can he win?
“Yeah,” he answered.