AUGUSTA, Ga. — Class has been in session for days here at Augusta National. The best players in the world trotting around nine holes at a time, prepping for their annual examination.
Returning competitors will tell you this course changes from year to year, if only slightly, so it always feels there’s something to learn in early April. Players walk around with inquisitive looks on their faces, even longtime vets like Phil Mickelson. It keeps them quiet and conscious of all their surroundings. A handful of those returning have made one thing pretty obvious, too: It’s good to walk around Augusta National with Fred Couples.
His presence is substantial at every Masters, but Couples has become the de facto tenured professor here in northeast Georgia. He holds nine-hole office hours sessions Monday through Wednesday, maybe even on Sunday when Tiger Woods is around to coax him into it.
Late on Wednesday morning was Rory McIlroy’s time with Freddie. After finishing the 9th, the man who needs a green jacket the most followed Couples to the driving range to hit wedges next to him. Freddie’s wagon is a good one to hitch yourself to, especially when learning about wedges.
The obvious topic of choice this week has been the firmness of the golf course, and how it compares to the firmest Masters of the past. After a soft Augusta National allowed scoring records in November, a return to the norm was expected, but to this extent? McIlroy couldn’t stop talking about the conditions during their practice session.
“Rory said it five times, ‘Have you ever seen the greens like this on Wednesday,’” Couples told the media. “And five times in a row I said ‘No.’”
This one counts as Couples’ 36th Masters, and his odds of winning keep getting longer. But he’ll keep showing up as long as they let him, like many former winners do, and he’ll keep filling the minds of those special few who get to play with him.
Top-10 players Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay have been showing up for Couples’ class all week. They played a match with the 61-year-old on Monday — Cantlay and Couples beating Schauffele and Max Homa — and then ran it back on Tuesday as well. Homa couldn’t make it the second time around, but it was another session of confirmation bias for Schauffele and Cantlay. If some of Freddie’s knowledge is good, more must be better.
“I’ll ask him certain specifics on certain pin locations and what he’s seen over the years and what he thinks is the best way to attack a pin,” Schauffele said. “Even if I know the answer, I’ll ask him just for affirmation or some positive reinforcement for myself so when I get to the hole, I’m not thinking about trying to punch it through the trees and hitting this crazy shot on the green through two bunkers.”
That’s been the Couples M.O. for years, hasn’t it? Keep it simple, stupid.
Couples is far from the only teacher out here. Phil Mickelson recently changed Webb Simpson‘s outlook by proving to him that there are bailout positions on every hole at Augusta National. The tidbits are currency for those who can gleam it. Those lucky to get some often are reluctant to share the specifics. They just want more.
“I’m very, very lucky that I somehow got thrown into that practice round group with Tiger and Freddie the last four years or whatever it is, especially around this place,” Justin Thomas said Tuesday. “I just follow them around like puppy dogs. Wherever they go, that’s where I go after it. If they hit chips from somewhere, I go hit chips from there.”
Thomas has it better than most. And if you put any confidence in his results, the annual Freddie sessions have been well worth it. Thomas’ career at Augusta is looks a lot like a healthy stock chart: T39 –> T22 –> T17 –> T12 –> 4.