Always smooth, never easy: Fighting through pain, Fred Couples makes it to the weekend at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Ageless, smooth-swinging Fred Couples, 58 years old and going on 35, made the cut at the Masters on Friday. That much has been true nearly every April since the Reagan administration.

It’s easy to look at the leaderboard and conclude that this all comes easily to Couples, who will play the weekend for the 31st time in 34 starts at Augusta. But nothing was effortless nor ageless about his Friday round, which saw a man battling obvious pain from a recurring back injury to play the weekend at a place he loves.

Couples played the first two rounds alongside 19-year-old amateur Joaquin Niemann and 22-year-old Haotong Li. Couples was their combined age in 2001. He has eight top 20s at Augusta since then.

Youth be damned, Couples had the honors as the group stepped to the tee of the par-5 15th hole. He strode ahead of the group, his gait slow and stiff, but purposeful. He wore a navy pullover, although the day had turned warm, and as he leaned over gingerly to ease his tee into the ground, the folds of clothing revealed the rigid lines of a back brace. He winced and adjusted the brace as he stood back up. Then he retreated to the back of the tee, where he took just one moment of stillness — being stationary seemed particularly uncomfortable — and breathed out slowly. This was a theme, too: lots of careful exhaling.

This drive shot out to the right, but not dangerously so, settling on a bed of pine straw behind a stand of trees blocking his way to the hole. Couples loped up the fairway ahead of his caddie and inspected his lie. It wasn’t an easy shot, a mandatory cut off a hook lie, but no worries — Couples sailed a left-to-righter around the trees down the fairway (and directly over Niemann’s head), leaving himself exactly 100 yards to the pin. From there he swung a wedge down the hill and over the pond, landing next to the hole and skipping to a stop some 12 feet past.

A man standing alongside the fairway let out a whistle that rose above the applause. “That’s dirty smooth,” he exclaimed.

There was no doubt in Couples’s stroke nor in the destination of his birdie putt. Two-thirds of the way to the hole, he raised his putter and added a punctuating fist pump as the ball dripped over the front edge, sending the bleachers around him into a frenzy (a well-mannered Augusta type of frenzy, but a frenzy nonetheless). Rolling the ball in the hole looked easier for Couples than extracting it from the cup.

This was the theme of the day: Winces as he walked, and swung, and bent. Pacing, stretching, clear discomfort. Longer exhales and shorter drives. Always smooth. Never easy.

Coming off an even-par opening round, Couples battled throughout the front nine, making eight pars and adding a birdie at No. 8 to take him to one under at the turn, just two shots behind the faltering leaders.

The back nine was far more erratic. Couples bogeyed No. 10, then bailed out right on his approach at No. 11, determined to stay out of the water, but ultimately ended up there on his third shot, instead. A chip and two putts later, he was in for a triple-bogey 7.

But there was far more to come. There was a birdie on 12. There was a rope-hook drive around the corner at 13, and another birdie there, too, before the delightful trip down 15 took Couples back to even par.

A week before the Masters, Couples played his first round of golf since battling through the back injury at a Champions tour event in Hawaii. Short game practice had been out of the question. “I don’t know how it’s going to work, going to Augusta without putting or chipping,” he said.

It wasn’t clear if it was rust, pain, or just the difficulty Augusta National that led to his subsequent three-putt from the fringe on No. 16. Regardless, there were no lasting effects, as he split the fairway from the 17th tee. “It’s just so effortless,” an admirer exclaimed from beside the tee. Couples has likely heard this before. “Freddayyyyyyyy,” a cocktail-bearing man in a fold-up chair bellowed in his direction as he walked up the fairway. Couples has heard that, too, for decades and decades.

As he tapped in for par on 17, the leaderboard behind the green was changing: Phil Mickelson, much younger than Couples but still an Ageless Wonder, had made a triple and a string of bogeys, falling from contention. His name was being taken down.

On Thursday, Couples averaged 285 yards off the tee; Friday that number dropped to 261. On No. 18, that was just fine: his driver came up short of the bunkers on the left. But then his approach shot came up short, too. Still, most 58-year-olds playing Friday afternoons at the Masters approach the 18th green soaking up the moment, knowing full well they won’t be around for the weekend. Couples is here for the battle.

He studied the chip. It called another quote to mind. “When I’m hitting wedges, I’m hunched over a little more, I’m bent, and there are some really bad areas in my back where there’s not enough room for nerves and all this stuff to move, and so it’s just really uncomfortable,” Couples had said.

Was it nerves? Weariness? Pain? Couples decelerated before impact on the chip, catching it heavy. The ball trickled just up onto the fringe. His tap-in bogey left him at 2 over par, safely inside the cut line if not a threat to win. That was okay: this year, for the first time, what he called his “huge goal” was just to make the cut.

Two over also meant that he was ahead of Tiger Woods (+4) and Phil Mickelson (+5), who’d teamed up to take his and Thomas Pieters’ lunch money in an eagle- and birdie-filled practice round Tuesday. After the round, Woods had been dismissive of his friend’s chances.

“We partnered up against Thomas and poor Freddie. It was a long golf course for Fred,” he said. Couples had agreed with the sentiment. But golf demands more than 

After signing his scorecard and greeting a small group of friends, Couples slipped away. There would be no interviews or autographs, as Couples was exiting to get treatment, an Augusta member explained, to ready himself for the weekend. Another weekend.

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