Fred Couples knows Riviera so well that he takes the backdoor exit through the kitchen in the clubhouse to avoid the media and the crowds. After shooting a two-over 73 in the final round of the Northern Trust Open to drop down the leaderboard and finish T7, he probably wasn’t in the mood to chat. Naturally, when Freddie discreetly came out of the scoring room and saw reporters focused on Kevin Na, he quickly turned the corner and walked briskly toward his escape route. But we cornered him just before he got away and he politely agreed to give us a few minutes of his time when asked.
“You got off to a good start,” stated a reporter.
“I did, didn’t I?” he said in his classic Freddie half-sarcastic tone.
For the first five holes on Sunday, it appeared the golf gods were watching over Fred Couples. No doubt he was the sentimental fan favorite. Regardless of their age, the gallery was overwhelmingly in support of the 51-year-old. Fred kicked off the first hole similar to the prior three rounds — with a birdie (he made eagle on Friday). Then he chipped in for birdie on the second hole. “Freddie, Freddie, Freddie,” chanted the crowd. He followed it with a third consecutive birdie on the third to jump atop the leaderboard.
After bogeying No. 6, he hit an errant drive on No. 7 and he tweaked his back whacking it out of the long kikuyu grass. Freddie posted a double-bogey six and never recovered from the blemish on his scorecard. He wouldn’t use his ailing back as an excuse, but he just wasn’t the same afterward.
“I knew it wouldn’t feel very good, but nothing bad happened,” said Freddie. “I just didn’t feel at all. I started snap-hooking them and didn’t hit it very hard….it’s nothing bad. I’m not having any excuse. It’s just after that point I never hit a shot. I hit a few balls in the air off the tee, but I just didn’t do it very well.
“I just didn’t feel my swing after that,” said Freddie. “I don’t have an answer for you. I never hit a shot for 12 holes, a really good shot off the ground.”
After pushing it in the rough on the 12th, he shaped a beautiful cut shot down the tree line onto the fringe about 20 feet to the front pin.
It certainly wasn’t very pretty and rather obvious he couldn’t wait to get off the course. He looked impatient, especially every time Na went through his excruciatingly slow pre-shot routine.
As for his back, it’s obvious Freddie doesn’t enjoy talking about it, but it “feels terrible.” He’s having an MRI taken on Monday, but he won’t go into details about what special remedy he has planned for it — probably because it’s too complicated and confusing to explain and tiresome for someone with chronic pain to discuss. That’s understandable (and I can commiserate).
Even though Freddie is more than twenty years older than Aaron Baddeley, he didn’t see age as a factor.
“I’m happy for him,” said Freddie. “I don’t care how old he is. He didn’t care I was 51, I didn’t care he was 21 or whatever he is. It’s kind of irrelevant.”
What he means is that as a competitor, your only focus is winning and beating your opponent.
“I’m a golfer, so I’m disappointed,” he said.
“If I was playing another course this week, another tournament, there’s no way I could have played this well. This is just my favorite course. If you watched me today, I slapped it around and shot 73, and I’m highly disappointed.”
It was disappointing to watch, too. In the last few years, Freddie seems to defy the limitations that go along with aging, but these opportunities to challenge history will only become harder.
There’s still The Masters in April.