Fred Couples is changing the Champions Tour. He’s selling thousands of tickets and creating a buzz just by showing up.
He can’t help it, he can’t stop it. He has that indescribable something that just compels people to want to watch him. Even at age 50, he’s still the “It Guy” of professional golf. At least the one not named Tiger Woods.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem alluded to Couples’ star-power when naming him US Captain for the 2009 Presidents Cup along with Greg Norman for the International squad.
“People ask me about Tiger Woods today, but for years and years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I was out on the Tour and one of these guys was not in the field, I heard about it from the sponsors,” Finchem explained. They were the biggest draw for all tournaments.
At the Toshiba Classic, even the TV announcers are amazed. They commented after the second round of the Toshiba Classic that 25,000 spectators had come out, which—unless it’s the Senior Open or Senior PGA—is a big gallery for Champions Tour golf. .To give a comparison, that was the daily ration of tickets at several Ryder Cups where the golf courses were tight.
Watching Couples navigate the Champions circuit is deja vu. But this time, instead of running from attention, he is actually enjoying it. A few years out of the spotlight and many seasons where back problems have hindered his ability to play have given him better appreciation for playing on both tours.
“I've gotten off to a great start,” he said about 2010.”To finish second to Tom (Watson) was a great week. And then to win at Naples was a blessing to win my first Champions Tour event that fast.”
Since he is still exempt for the PGA Tour and can play in some events as past champion, his plan for 2010 is to mix it up, 12 events on the Champions circuit and six or so on the regular Tour. In what can only be described as typical Couples fashion, his schedule was set with ties to favorite people and places.
“I went to school in Houston. I love the L.A. Open. My girlfriend lives in Phoenix. I won't skip The Masters,” he started, adding that on the Champions Tour he is not sure outside the majors, where to play. Several friends are giving him advice. “I laugh because Jay ( Haas) plays the ones he is telling me not to play at.”
Couples and Haas, friends for decades, will partner for the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in April.
In an interesting twist by the USGA, Couples is going to be the honorary chairman of the US Senior Open at Sahalee in his hometown of Seattle in July.
“The Senior Open, you know, that's a big week,” he said exhibiting new-found maturity. “I know whenever I am the host or the honorary chairman it's kind of funny to me, but I'm loving doing it. Funny, in a way, that it's a U.S. Open.”
Amusing to him that it was a USGA event because he has always had a hard time hitting fairways in US Opens. Good decision on the part of the USGA because they know they’ll have him there for the whole week no matter how he plays!
“Whether it’s a Senior Open or a regular one, but I am from there, and I hope to help the tournament and make sure that it goes well and we can come back sooner than later to have it again.” He will also play the Boeing event. His late mother worked for the Boeing Union in Seattle.
Whether he will play more on the regular Tour after this season may depend on how well he does against the top players there.
“I'm a Champions Tour player now. It's part of the deal. I have no problem with that,” he said. “I've been waiting. Ten years ago, I didn't think I would want to play the Champions Tour. It was not that big of a deal. When I got to be 46, I started thinking, they should have to lower the age on the Champions Tour.”
In 2009 Couples was still on PGA Tour leaderboards, with thirds in Los Angeles and Houston, an eighth at the Byron Nelson, a fifth at Wyndham. He was 75th on the money list for 2009. He’s exempt for this year and will play The Players Championship.
This season, in two regular starts, he’s 37th and 14th. And in three Champions Tour events, he has a victory, a second and is leading after two rounds in his third event, the Toshiba Classic with Tom Lehman ready to put cleat marks on his back.
“You know, I know I still can play golf. I have had two great events on the Champions Tour. And I hope to continue to play out here the same way,” he added.
There were many years when Couples shied away from the spotlight, when he got to the parking lot as fast as possible. Now he’s fine with being the favorite.
“That's actually a great thing. And if you don't like that, then I should be in Palm Springs playing with the 8-handicaps that I play with. I'm not being funny,” he added. “You know, I went through 8, 10, 12 years where I thought—I didn't win 100 tournaments—but I thought I was someone who could win the tournament. That's how I am out here. If that's every week, I have to earn that. “
In the last fifteen years there have been swing accommodations for his ailing back. In recent seasons he went to the belly putter.
“At first I used to jam it way in there for a little pressure, and then I started putting well with it,” he explained. “I do not practice putt. I've probably putted—I'm not happy to say it, probably 20 minutes a month practice putt.
"Most of it is running around before I tee off. But I do it because it helps my back. It actually keeps me a little taller, and when I hinge a little more than I should, that's when I have all kinds of back problems, so it keeps me from doing that.”
Age 50, a victory on the Champions Tour, exempt for the regular Tour, and he doesn’t practice putting. That should give you an idea of Couples’ raw talent.
Surprisingly, he confessed to some doubts on the road to his first Champions Tour victory.
“To be honest with you, I thought really—I never had negative thoughts,” he explained. “But I thought, ‘God, if I get in contention and I battle with some guy, I haven't really won a tournament in a long time, I may not close the deal.’”
These days, Couples is enjoying applause from galleries on both tours and is finally learning to smell the roses. In the process, he’s adding a new level of excitement where it’s needed. He can’t help it. He’s the “It Guy.”