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The GOLF interview: Fred Couples digs deep

March 16, 2017

It’s been 25 years since Fred Couples won the 1992 Masters. Older, wiser and achier, the Hall of Famer, 57, discusses his love affair with Augusta, how a healthy back would have helped his career, and what he’s really good at (acting!).​

Let’s start with the 1992 Masters. You led by three at the par-3 12th on Sunday. Your tee shot landed short of the green, halfway up the bank, started rolling toward Rae’s Creek—then stopped. You saved par and went on to win. Was that the biggest break of your career?
Yeah, pretty much. It was just huge. Because in my mind, all I had to do was hit the green, two-putt and get out of there. And when you’re playing really well, you assume you’ll hit a good shot. You can miss on a lot of holes [at Augusta], but not on the 12th. Anything can happen because it’s such a touchy shot.

How did you celebrate that night?
I went to a dinner at the club, put on a member’s green jacket, and then went home to the house where I was staying. My teacher and his wife were there, and some friends. My caddie came over with a couple of people, and my manager was there with his wife. So we probably had 10 or 12 people. We stayed up till 3:00 in the morning. It was a lot of, “Can you believe this? Can you believe you won?”

Of the four majors, was the green jacket the one you wanted most?
Because I won, that’s the right thing to say. But I always wanted to win [the Masters] or the U.S. Open. As a player, you know your limits. I felt Augusta was the course I’d really get to know over time and could win, whereas the U.S. Open would take a great, great Sunday of hitting fairways, of keeping out of that big, thick rough. Augusta seemed easier for me. I always felt I should win there.

You came close again in 2006, at age 46, before finishing three behind Phil Mickelson. Was that year even more nerve-wracking than 1992?
That Sunday in ’06 is about the best I ever played—I just didn’t putt very well. But tee to green, I played phenomenal. And as we know, it’s a great course for Phil. And we battled and battled and battled, but he got the better end of it. But I think I was more nervous [the year I finished a stroke behind Mark O’Meara] in 1998. In those two years, I hit some really good shots. A couple of [loose] shots kept me from beating Mark and Phil. But that’s life. You do your best. If someone says, “Should you have won at Augusta again?” My answer is, “Yeah, but I didn’t.”

You’re 57. How have you played so well at the Masters long into your 50s?
The excitement is still there. And I can play Augusta really well because I know it so well and I feel very comfortable on it. 

Looking back at 30-plus years going to Augusta, which one or two memories endure above all others?
That’s a great, great question. One was my first year there [1983]. I made the cut and got paired with Tom Watson on Saturday. I had played with Tom a couple of times but never at Augusta. I was just overwhelmed. It was two things—he was the king at Augusta at the time, and he played so fast and hit it so good. I shot 73-68 [in the first two rounds], and we were both in the top 10. We were in great shape, but I was so overmatched by the pairing and by being around the top 10. It was a huge learning experience. And playing against Phil in 2006 was incredible. That Sunday, I couldn’t have played a lot better. Yeah, I three-putted a couple of times, but you’re gonna do that at Augusta. I hit a lot of great shots.

You’re a Hall of Famer with 63 professional wins, including a green jacket and two Players Championship titles. Has your career met your expectations? Do you ever think, “What if…”?
There are always nagging “What ifs.” I’ve had a great teacher in Paul Marchand since 1986, 1987, and I worked with Butch [Harmon]. They both taught the same thing, and they were both spot-on. They wanted me to practice more. In retrospect, if I’d had a teacher who I lived closer to, I may have been better off. But also, with my back, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.

Because of the back pain you’ve battled for more than 20 years?
Since around 1993, I haven’t practiced putting for more than 10 minutes. That’s almost 25 years. It’s just physically impossible, and I know that. Yeah, there were some tournaments that I gave away. Maybe another major or two would make my [record] better. But I didn’t get ’em.

Which major near-miss stings the most?
The one that was really, really rough was the [1990] PGA. I was 30 years old. I hadn’t won at Augusta yet. That would’ve been my first major. I bogeyed three of the last five holes [on Sunday]. [Winner Wayne Grady] earned it. I’m not saying I completely gave it to him—I gave it away and he earned it. That was a rough one.

Do you ever think what your career would have looked like had your back been healthy?
I don’t talk about it much, but when you’re not healthy, there’s really only one person who knows. I didn’t have back surgeries, but I can promise you that I had my back worked on way too many times, and I missed way too many golf tournaments. I was able to play, and I enjoyed it, but what I missed were chances to work harder on my game. My body couldn’t take it. It still can’t.

Are you in constant pain?
Yeah, I don’t sleep much. And in the last year, I didn’t play for almost eight months. As I got better, my body started to feel really, really good. But once I swing a club, it all goes haywire. I can play. I can go hit the ball. But I might wake up tomorrow and not be able to move [for two days]. I [adjust], and with a little practice try to figure it out. But I twitch all the time.

You must love the game a lot to keep playing through the pain.
For me, the Champions Tour is all about the pairings. If I didn’t like the pairings and the enjoyment [of the players], I would never come out here. But if you’re a good player, and you play really good rounds, you get the best players out here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To me, that’s the challenge. When that stops and I’m in 50th place, there’s no way I’ll put my body through it. But I really, really love to play.

Considering all your back problems, perhaps you’re an overachiever.
Tiger gave me one of the greatest compliments a couple of years ago. He said, “Dude, how do you do this?”

You can relate to what Tiger’s gone through with his back injuries. Do you think he can get better and win?
I love the guy. And I honestly believe he can, yeah. It’s hard for Tiger, because not only has he been the best player for 18, 20 years, but he works really hard on his game. So he’s going to have to find his way of playing. When I’d have to withdraw, I used to tell my old caddie, Joey [LaCava], “Joe, it is what it is.” I can’t make my back feel better when I swing. It’s impossible. And so now [Joe] caddies for Tiger, and I think he’s a perfect caddie because he knows. He can tell Tiger, “Just get through this round.” But yes, I think that if Tiger didn’t think he could come back and win, there would be no reason for him to play.

Ray Floyd was a mentor of yours. What advice did he give you?
He helped me play par 5s better. Ray once said to me, “You’re trying to eagle every par 5. You need to make birdies, and you don’t want to make a par.” He helped me a lot. Every time I teed off at par 72, I felt like I was at 69.

What advice do you give some of today’s young guys?
I love Rickie Fowler and Brendan Steele. With Rickie, I say, “Go get them, and pay attention to what you’re doing. This isn’t a sprint. Don’t worry about two bad weeks. Don’t get down on yourself.” And with Brendan, I’d say, “Hey, it’s a Presidents Cup year. It’s about time you make one of these teams.” 

Which player today reminds you of yourself?
Scott Piercy. I really like his game and the way he plays. He bombs it. Beautiful swing. It took him a while to get on Tour, but his game is phenomenal. He almost won [the U.S. Open] at Oakmont. Maybe when he gets that next win it will propel him.

You’re old friends with Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson. What are they like to hang out with?
They’re not too into themselves, and I’m certainly not, so we hit it off. They’re easy, you know? Phil will say, “You wanna eat now or in an hour?” “You wanna watch the Lakers play, or go play cards?” I love simplicity. No drama. I don’t want three-hour dinners, sitting around a table and telling stories over glasses of wine. I don’t have the body or the patience for that. I want to play golf.

You’ve skippered three winning Presidents Cup teams. Does a Ryder Cup captaincy interest you?
Of course, but I’ll probably never be picked. There comes a time when you get passed by. At one time, people thought I should be a Ryder Cup captain because I did well in the Presidents Cup. But it’s the players who play. I was there in Chicago [at the 2012 Ryder Cup, at Medinah]. I thought we had it won. Davis did an unbelievable job. But Sunday, we just didn’t get enough points. That doesn’t come back to Davis—it was the players and maybe a pairing here or there. But Davis was a great captain then, and he was a great captain last year. And Jim Furyk will be a great captain [in 2018].

For several years, you’ve been appearing in TV spots as part of Mitsubishi’s “Don’t get caught out of your comfort zone” campaign. You’re very good in them.
It’s like anything—the more you do it, the easier it gets. Before [shooting], I’d think, “My God, what am I doing? Why am I saying these silly lines?” But they let you do them over and over.

So you really were out of your comfort zone as a thespian?
Shooting any commercial is uncomfortable, because you’ve got a crew staring at you. They usually deal with actors. And now some chump is here because he hits a golf ball [laughs]. I felt like they were thinking, “One screwup, one tongue-twister, and we’ll be here all day.” It took me a while to get that out of my mind.

You’ve never loved the spotlight. You once said that you didn’t answer your phone because “there might be someone on the other end.” Has it gotten easier to deal with the attention that comes with being famous?
There were a few years when Davis and I would have to stop [and do media] after every round. I understand it if you shoot 66, but if you didn’t play great, you’d still have to talk. I do appreciate it, but time is really important. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I would come out of the media room [after a press conference] and a guy would say, “Can I ask a couple quick questions?” And sure, you’d stop and it’d take two or three minutes. Then you’d go another 10 feet, and another guy would say, “Hey, you gave him two minutes—can I get two minutes?” I didn’t handle that well. There were a couple of times I was a jerk, and I said, “Jesus, didn’t you see me? I was right there—I talked for 35 minutes. I don’t have time for you.” I was just trying to politely say, “I already did it.” But it didn’t always come out that way.

Last question, speaking of your younger self: If you went out today and battled 1992 Freddie in match play—and he used his old equipment—who would win?
[Exhales] Hooooo. I would say in my 50s, I’m a better golfer. And [modern] equipment makes me feel like I’m a better golfer, because the clubs are made for less curve. So even though there’s no way I’m physically better right now than when I was 32, Fred of today would win. But it would go extra holes.