If Fred Couples could have found a way to avoid damage on Augusta National’s par-3 holes, he might have really had a special day during Friday’s second round.
The patrons however, who hold the 57-year-old Couples in the kind of warm embrace reserved for the likes of Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Crenshaw, rode the wave along with the 1992 Masters champion who made six birdies, two bogeys and one double bogey on his way to a 70 and a spot on the first page of the leaderboard at 1-under-par 143.
Couples is tied for sixth with Justin Rose, Jon Rahm and Ryan Moore.
“Overall, it was a good two days,” said the two-time Players Championship winner. “I really know the course well. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to have two great days of golf (on the weekend). I’m a competitor so I like to believe in myself. I’d like to think I’ve had a lot of good finishes here and my goal is to keep fighting with these guys.”
Couples saved his best for last as he stuffed a 171-yard approach shot at the par-4 18th hole to within 3 feet. He landed the ball on the slope behind the front hole placement, then watched in suspense along with thousands of patrons as the ball trickled backward toward the hole.
The ball turned ever so slightly and rolled past the edge of the hole. As it was slowly rolling down the slope, Couples first raised his left hand and pointed his index figure skyward, then held his arms outstretched with his biggest smile of the day.
“I needed that,” he said. “I needed a really good shot. I wasn’t really thinking about birdie but where the pin was, if you hit a good one, you’re going to have a shot at it.”
Other players took note of the roars and quickly deduced it was Couples.
“Freddie’s impressive … he always finds a way out here,” said co-leader Rickie Fowler. “This isn’t somewhere new for him. He’s done this plenty of times.”
The closing birdie got one of the strokes back that Couples had lost with bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17. His only other blemish was a double bogey at the sixth when he came up short off the tee, tried to put the ball onto the green, but was short again and watched in dismay as the ball rolled back off the front of the green to his right.
Couples chipped to within 10 feet but missed the bogey attempt. He has played the par-3 holes at 4-over this week, with bogeys both days at No. 16.
Other than that, he was knocking iron shots close and converting the opportunities. His longest birdie putt of the day was a 13-footer at No. 7, and he had birdie rolls of four feet at No. 2, five feet at No. 3, six feet at No. 5 and five feet at No. 13.
Couples will play on the weekend at Augusta for the first time since 2014, when he tied for 20th. He missed the cut in 2015 (only the third of his career in 31 Masters starts) and could not play because of a back injury last year.
He had made a habit of hanging around the first page of the leaderboard since 2010, when a first-round 66 gave him the lead. Couples faded with a 75 in the second round that year but he was seventh entering the third round in 2011, first in 2012 and second in 2013.
“I’m not thinking about winning this tournament,” he said. “But I’m thinking continuing to play well and see what happens.”
The reason Couples seems ageless at Augusta is simple: he’s played 120 career rounds and, entering the tournament, was tied with Jack Nicklaus for the lowest scoring average (71.98) of any player with 100 or more rounds.