Fred Couples’ mind moves in mysterious ways, wandering this direction and that as casually unencumbered as the man himself.
So when you ask about his major moment 20 years ago, you shouldn’t be surprised by anything that comes out.
“1992 – my God, that was a long time ago,” he said.
Couples makes no mention of the miracle at Rae’s Creek, when his mishit ball on the par-3 12th defied physics and somehow aborted its descent down the slick bank about a foot above the water line, allowing him to escape with his par and three-shot lead intact.
He has no recall of the 7-iron he hit out of the fairway bunker to the 18th green that allowed him the luxury of just needing a three-putt (he took only two) to beat Raymond Floyd and win the Masters Tournament.
There’s no wistful acknowledgment of the emotional scene in Butler Cabin when ex-roommate Jim Nantz interviewed him in a green jacket just the way Nantz predicted he would all those years before in their University of Houston dorm.
Couples’ memory of his career-defining moment saunters its own merry way.
“It’s so long ago,” he said again. “Some kid asked me that the other day. I said, ‘How old were you?’ He was 5. It’s just weird.
“I talk more about when I lost to (Mark) O’Meara (in 1998) and Phil (Mickelson in 2006) than I do about when I won. O’Meara birdieing three of the last four holes was incredible. When I played with Phil, I felt like I played right with him or better than him, and he just got the job done.”
With a little nudge back on track, Couples almost gives it up.
“When I got to the 12th hole in ’92, I tell people that’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been at Augusta or anywhere,” he said.
An instant later, it was 2006 all over again and the locale shifted to the 14th green and a roll that wasn’t so lucky when another ball stopped on a downslope just above the pin.
“That shot, I still to this day don’t know how it didn’t roll up to one side of the hole instead of stay up above the hole,” Couples said of the decisive moment in his duel with Mickelson. “I didn’t really know how to hit that putt. If you tap, it wiggles anyway. I shanked it and went five feet by and I missed that and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was a little bit sour.”
At 52, Couples hasn’t changed much since that Sunday 20 years ago when he was No. 1 in the world and fulfilling expectations. In the intervening years with a bum back that didn’t get the easygoing Couples memo, he didn’t pile up other majors or amass a block of wins that assured enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Couples shows up every April at Augusta with every intention of putting on another green jacket. He has missed the cut only twice in 27 Masters. He finished sixth two years ago and tied for 15th last year.
He returns feeling fairly fit and fresh off a victory two weeks ago in the Champions Tour’s Mississippi Gulf event, where he made a closing birdie set up by a 310-yard drive.
“It’s always exciting for me to get to Augusta,” he said. “It’s a tournament I feel like I can really do well in. I’m not going there because I won in ’92. I’m not there yet. I might be in two or three years where I’ll play just a couple more times and say, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to Augusta because I won in ’92.’ I’ve never said that, so rarely do I talk about it.”
Couples’ career story can’t be separated from his back issues. It first struck him in 1994 at Doral, causing him to miss three months, including the Masters. It’s never been the same since, yet he’s still managed to keep playing. More often than not, he hurt himself doing exercises intended to help his back.
He has competed in stops and starts during his 32-year career.
“I always told myself to be as ready as I could, but a lot of times there was no golf,” he said. “I never could get on that right track. I chose to go more supple and limber. I’m kind of a closet practicer. When I really, really need to, I’ll go out and do it.”
Couples won 15 times on the PGA Tour, twice in Europe and seven times since joining the senior circuit in 2010. How much more he could have accomplished healthy is debatable.
“I would love to have won more tournaments, and obviously I think I could have if I was a little more healthy,” he said. “Could I have won one more time? I really believe so. Could I have won 10 more times? Probably not. I really was OK.”
Couples comes to Augusta having played three consecutive weeks, and he attributes feeling better to regulating his inflammation with a medication called Anatabloc. Couples was so pleased with the results that he became a paid “brand ambassador” for the drug.
“For me personally it’s already great, because I actually feel better,” he said. “I’ve been taking stuff for three months and in my mind I feel better and when I wake up I feel better and when I play golf I’m better off.
“I still have ‘the area,’ but around that feels better.”
His health is more at the forefront of his mind as he gets older.
“Mom, dad, aunt and uncle – no one lived to be past 70,” he said. “This doctor was telling me I was on that path, too, with a lot of inflammation in your body. I’m hoping in due time mine will start to come down. … It put the fear of God in me.”
Until he decides to hang up his soft shoes and finally do the exercising without worrying about costing himself playing time, Couples still wants to challenge golf’s elite at his “all-time favorite spot.” He might not be as likely to shoot the 66s and 67s at Augusta National as some of the younger guys, but he knows a string of 70s might be just enough.
“Once I’m there, I honestly think I can be in the mix,” he said. “I’ve got to play really well on Saturday and Sunday. My goal is to compete with the golf course. I’m not worried about a 22-year-old who hits it 380 yards or an older guy. I’ve got to go out there and shoot scores to give me a chance on the weekend to compete with the young and the older guys.”
One thing different about this Masters will be who is carrying his bag. Joe LaCava, who had caddied for Couples at every Masters since 1990, is working for Tiger Woods now. Couples’ new looper is his girlfriend, Midge Trammell.
“She’s done a phenomenal job,” Couples said. “She’s caddied (for me) and won a couple times on the Champions Tour and been doing great. She was (at Augusta) last year. She didn’t caddie but she knows what’s in front of her. I’ll be huffing and puffing up those hills, too. It’ll be fun.”