AUGUSTA, Ga. — Before the camera clicks on and the light at the top of it comes to life, the co-leader of The Masters has one request: A few more seconds. Please, just a few more seconds. It’s been a long day and a long hour after a five-hour round around these hills and slopes. Having been granted his request, Fred Couples — tucked between a molting pine tree and an empty television interview area — begins to go through his usual pre-everything routine.
First, he groans.
Then he puts his hands on his hips and leans back.
Then he drops his body forward to touch his toes.
Finally, he groans again.
The man holding the microphone from the Golf Channel asks if he is good to go. Couples exhales and smiles. Yes, yes he is.
“I don’t feel old on this course just yet,” he said moments before. “There will be a time when I’ll sit here and tell you, ‘Wow, I’m done thinking that I’m going to do well.’ Because I come in with the idea that if I play like I can, I can still do well. Even if I’m 52 instead of 32. And 32 was a long time ago.”
If 32 was a long time ago, than someone forgot to flip the off switch on the Augusta National time machine. Twenty years after the smooth-swinging, easy-going Couples won his only green jacket within these Georgia pines, he’s got everybody at The Masters thinking back to 1992.
Stiff back and all, Couples shot a 5-under 67, to take a share of the 36-hole lead at Augusta National Friday afternoon. At a place where his game never seems to get old, Couples had the galleries — and this course — eating out of the palm of his hand. It was a five-hour tour filled with “Come on Freddie!” and “Let’s get this Boom Boom!” cheers. Wearing a sweater nearly identical to the tint of his green jacket, Couples smiled and nodded in their direction on every hole here.
“A lot of the tournaments I play in, at my age now — not 20 years ago — they are just golf tournaments,” Couples said. “It’s another week of golf. And for me to be tied at this moment, you know, it’s a little shocking, but I played a really good round of golf today. I have to do that tomorrow or they will just fly by me. I mean, these guys are not going to come out and shoot even-par.”
Logic says that he shouldn’t be able to win.
He’s 52 and despite having nearly a dozen top-10 finishes in his previous 27 appearances at The Masters, winning majors just isn’t something that quinquagenarians do. Sure, Tom Watson and Greg Norman have thrown charges into the game recently. But in the end, neither of them — nor anyone else — has been able to sustain the magic for 72 holes and become the oldest player to win a major in the modern era.
But will Couples?
“Can I win? I believe I can, yes,” he said matter-of-factly.
And if he does?
“It would be a walk-off,” Couples said outside the press building. “I am dead serious when I say that. I mean, what a way to go. I feel like I’m a good player, who — if I play well — can be in this exact spot. … I’d watch TV and come to tournaments, but I’d never play another (event). I’ll play here.”
A walk-off Masters would only add to the popularity that Couples enjoys on these grounds. Fellow competitors enjoy his company. So do ex-caddies. (Just this week, he played a practice with Tiger Woods who’s new caddie is Joe LaCava. Couples and LaCava were together for two decades.)
“He’s just cool,” said Rory McIlroy, who is atop a pack of a half-dozen golfers one shot behind Couples and co-leader Jason Dufner, at 4-under par. “I hope I’m that cool when I’m 52 or whatever he is. Yeah, he’s just a cool guy. And he’s good fun. I’ve gotten to know him a little bit of the last couple of years and you know, he’s laid back and relaxed and just a really nice guy.”
When the duties and requests had finally come to an end, Couples plopped himself into the front seat of a golf cart next to an Augusta National member. Before he was driven back out to the public, Couples groaned again as his body relaxed into the cushion. A pair of well-wishers came up to him and shook his hand and wished him luck. He fidgeted around in the seat.
This is your 36-hole co-leader at The Masters.
A man whose body knows exactly how old it is, playing on a course that makes him forget about it.
“At 52 years old, I’m getting up there,” Couples said. “I feel like it won’t be long (until the end). Someone just (told) me a minute ago, I have the lowest scoring average — better than Jack Nicklaus. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know the last year he played, but his scores kept going up a little bit and mine will be doing that shortly. But today was not one of those days.”
Contributor Brendan Prunty is the golf writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed at Twitter.com/BrendanPrunty. This is his second Masters tournament.