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At the Masters, Tiger Woods and Freddie Couples are frozen in time

Tiger Woods and Fred Couples on Wednesday at the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — They seemed to linger longer around Augusta’s 18th green.

There was Tiger Woods, chipping from the front edge, dialing in low spinners to the front left corner of the putting surface. That’s where they put the hole on Sunday at the Masters, which means Woods intends to be here when they do.

There was Fred Couples, rolling lag putts to a white disc on the back right corner, simulating a tournament situation of his own. Their third, Justin Thomas, world No. 7 and Woods’ adopted little brother, stood over a putt near the front of the green. Woods gave a nod to Couples as if to say watch this and sent a pitch skittering across the front of the green, where it rolled through Thomas’ legs before trickling to a stop some 18 inches from his target. Thomas shook his head. Couples laughed. It was a simple moment and a reminder that even for these guys, simple moments on the course are about as good as it gets.

“I’ve never been paired with Tiger in this tournament, but I’ve played maybe 20 practice rounds with him and it’s a blast,” Couples said. “The bottom line is I enjoy watching him, just to watch him play. The way he hits it, the way he looks around the course, hits some shots, where he goes.”

To hear Woods tell it, he’s here to win the Masters. There’s no arguing with that; he’s always shown up to tournaments believing he can win and has proven those suspicions correct at an incredibly high rate. But when Woods was in rehab following last February’s crash, it was this moment, right here, that he missed most of all. When Woods made his first public appearance at the Hero World Challenge in December, he described how he longed for golf’s simple pleasures, like the joy of a well-struck pitch shot or the feel of the sun on his face. He missed his friends, too.

“I missed the jabbing, the needling and how’s everyone doing,” he said. “There’s only so much you can do via text and phone calls.”

And here he was on Masters Wednesday with two of his closest friends, chipping and chatting on 18. The three golfers and their caddies scooped up their balls and moseyed toward the back of the green but paused there, too, stuck in conversation. They seemed reluctant to let the practice round end. Perhaps because this one seems more precious than most.

“It’s a miraculous thing,” Couples said. “Fourteen months ago I’m bawling like a baby every day, now I’m paired with him and he looks strong.”

Couples and Woods are separated by 16 years but have plenty in common. Green jackets. Syrupy tempos. Bad backs. And the ability, one week per year, to slow the relentless march of time.

You could argue that Augusta National is an institutional attempt to freeze time, what with the cell phone ban and the hand-changed scoreboards and the dollar-fifty sandwiches. But Woods and Couples seem uniquely suited to tap into the property’s fountain-of-youth qualities.

Asked post-round to compare Woods now vs. Woods three years ago, Couples sighed.

“Y’know, that’s a great question,” he said. “I personally think…”

And then he paused, just to make sure he meant what he was about to say out loud. When it comes to Tiger Woods, it’s worth the mental double-check. Couples’ brain confirmed his first instincts.

“I really, personally think he looks the exact same.”

People have been saying the same thing about Couples, who’s 62 now, for the last two decades. It’s not quite true, of course. Neither Couples nor Woods is the exact same as they were. That’s not how this works. On Wednesday, Couples reminisced about the days where he’d hit a short iron into No. 1 rather than 5-iron this week. He said he hasn’t played golf since November because his back would “go bad” after hitting just 20-30 balls in his basement. He’s acutely aware of the effects of time. But the pain seems to lessen here.

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Couples’ record at Augusta National in his prime was a model of consistency; between 1984 and 1998 he played 15 times and made 15 cuts including eight top-10s, four top-fives and one victory. But his late-career resurgence was arguably more impressive. Couples turned 50 in 2010. He finished sixth that year, T15 the next year, T12 the year after that, then T13, then T20. He made the cut in 2017 (T18) and 2018 (T38), too. It has only been these last three years that Couples has started to show any real signs of age, missing the cut each time. He still may reverse that process this year.

Woods’ presence at Augusta National has been less consistent the last decade; since 2013 he has played four Masters and missed four, too. He doesn’t look the same now as he did then; he has a fused back and a bionic leg, among other things. But neither is enough to keep him from the first tee on Thursday. His entire career, this tournament has served as the stage for his greatest comebacks and his greatest triumphs. Most of the time, those have followed a practice round with Couples.

In 1996, when Woods played his last Masters as an amateur, he played a practice round with Couples and Greg Norman. He missed the cut that year.

Fred Couples, Tiger Woods and Greg Norman ahead of the 1996 Masters.

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When Woods returned to golf in 2010 following his infidelity scandal, he played a practice round with Couples and Jim Furyk. He finished T4 that year.

In 2018, when Woods returned to Augusta after two years away with injuries, he played a practice round with Couples and Phil Mickelson (and Thomas Pieters!). He finished T32 that year.

In 2019, when Woods arrived in his best form in years, he played a practice round with Couples and Justin Thomas. He won that year.

So when Woods announced that he’d be returning to Augusta National this year, just 14 months after a devastating car crash, there was no question who he’d hand-pick as practice-round partner. Couples said he heard from Woods on Sunday night.

“He sent me a text saying, ‘Dude, we’re playing at 3 tomorrow, see you on the tee.’

“I said, ‘You bet.'”

That next day, Woods and Couples and Thomas teed off on a sunny Georgia afternoon in front of the biggest practice-round crowd anyone could ever remember. Fans were cheering every chip, whether it was the first or fifth that Woods had hit on a given hole.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Couples said. And he’s won the tournament.

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“Everyone loves Freddie. That’s why they all came out,” quipped Woods at his Tuesday press conference.

Wednesday’s crowd was still enormous. They cheered all three pros into skipping balls across the pond at 16, though only Couples’ made it across. They lacked the frenzied energy of Monday afternoon’s Tiger Trackers, lulled by the sleepy, humid Wednesday morning. Still, they ringed the 18th green, a dozen deep at least, and when the group finally left the green they followed them up toward the clubhouse, a giant group of fans, desperate for every last glimpse.

Why do they love these rounds so much?

“I’m a humorous guy, and I like to tell them stories,” Couples said. “But usually on the tees it’s very quiet and I let them do their thing, and as soon as we step down the fairway there will be a story about this guy or that guy or me or Tiger. Then we laugh until we get to the ball.”

Woods often says that he can’t repeat the chatter that goes on between him and his playing partners. I suspect that has less to do with unrepeatable jokes and more to do with the fact that nobody else would quite get it. And for Woods, this week’s rounds meant a little bit extra. Asked for one word to describe his feelings, Woods knew just what to say: Thankful.

“It’s been a tough, tough year,” he said. “And there’s a lot of stuff that I had to deal with that I don’t wish on anyone, but here we are, Masters week. Being able to play and practice. And for me, more importantly, just to say thank you to all the guys that have texted me, FaceTimed me, and called me and given me all their support, to see them in person and to say thank you has meant a lot.”

Here we are, Masters week. Fred Couples and Tiger Woods have completed their practice round.

Now the tournament can officially begin.

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