Playing in his 29th Northern Trust Open, Fred Couples is as popular as ever. Before and after the 51-year-old hit his drive on 18 at Riviera in the third round, the fans gathered around the tee, chanting, “Freddie, Freddie!” After John Senden and J.B. Holmes each teed off, the gallery also cheered, “Freddie, Freddie!” When Fred approached the green, they continued the Freddie anthem. And when he went into the clubhouse to sign his scorecard, die-hard fans braved the pouring rain and yelled for Freddie to come outside. He talked with the press for five minutes before ducking out toward the locker room. Sorry, kids — Fred’s tired.
Freddie, who stretched throughout the day to ease his back pain, grinded to shoot one-under 70. I followed Freddie’s group on the front nine, and between chatting with CBS funnyman David Feherty and Geoff Shackelford, I had quite an entertaining walk (but I looked like an idiot). I’m glad I finally got to see at least the front nine at Riviera.
It didn’t look easy out there for Freddie. He hit a couple of good putts early in the round, which just burned the edge. He had an impressive up-and-down on No. 8 (a hole that Shack despises; I spoke with caddies who complained about the redesign earlier this week and how it doesn’t fit with the rest of the course). After pulling his drive in the trees, Freddie’s punch-out nicked some branches, but got a favorable bounce and his ball ended up in the middle of the fairway. From about 50 yards, he pitched it to 11 feet and drained the putt to save par.
Couples first bogey in 41 holes came on the tricky but intriguing No. 10. He chunked his pitch and his next chip went 20 feet past the hole.
“I think we actually got lucky,” said Freddie. “On the 10th and 11th holes, I was thinking to myself as I was bogeying 10, wow, this is going to be brutal. But it stopped after 11. Tough day. You know, I hung in there and I didn’t hit the ball exceptionally well, but I hit it solid, which is what I needed to do and I just didn’t make enough birdies.”
Otherwise, Freddie fought hard to stay in contention, which even surprised him. (I was worried because sometimes when he starts finishing with one-hand and fidgeting more than usual with his back, it goes downhill.)
“I hate to tell you, I was thinking, what am I going to shoot on the back nine, 40?” said Freddie. “Honestly, you start playing like those guys did yesterday in that weather, anything would have happened. But it stopped and we got through there and I think I had two birdies and a bogey, which is very good. I can’t complain.”
Aaron Baddeley sneaked into the lead with a solid four-under performance to have a one-shot advantage over Couples and Kevin Na going into the final round. Baddeley’s only mistake was on No. 11 where he missed a three-footer for par.
“I think tomorrow is going to be a good day just because I’m excited about it,” said the 29-year-old Australian, who has two-career wins on the PGA Tour. “You know, I’m excited to be back in this position. I feel very comfortable. This definitely is what I play and practice for is to lead and have a chance to win the golf tournament.”
Besides Baddeley’s family and close friends, it’s safe to say everyone will be pulling for Fred to win.
“If I don’t play like an idiot, I’ll be fine,” said Freddie, who would become the third-oldest winner in the history of the PGA Tour at 51 years, 4 months and 17 days old.
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)