INDIAN WELLS — Gary McCord calls him Boom Boom. If he were a fighter, his nickname would be Kayo. If he were a ballplayer, it'd be Babe.
He has a reputation as a guy who doesn't know how well he plays this game.
Lots of golfers shrug when they hit a bad shot. Fred Couples yawns.
He always manages to look as if he's in the midst of a $2 Nassau with the guys from the garage when he's in the middle of the U.S. Open, when he's got a four-foot putt to take the lead in the Masters.
Either Fred Couples is the most relaxed player who ever took up golf--or he just doesn't understand the situation.
He came out of Seattle at 20, hitting the ball so high and so far, the rest of the game shuddered and thought, "There goes the neighborhood."
But Fred did it so easily, it seemed the game was hard put to keep his interest.
It wasn't only that he didn't throw clubs, kick the ball washer, fire his caddy, it was just that he looked like a guy touring an art gallery. Nobody who hit the ball that well should look that casual.
People thought, well, maybe it would help if he scowled more. Maybe when he hit some really bad shots, he would be seen bending the club around a tree.
If only he looked as if he cared. Maybe, somebody suggested, he didn't know a bogey from a birdie.
Freddy looked like a guy squandering aces in a no-limit poker game. McCord was moved to remark more than once that if he had Couples' talent, he would be going around a course looking like a guy who just got the news from the Titanic.
Freddy didn't go around whistling or cracking jokes or buddying up to the audience. He just had trouble looking sad. You really couldn't tell by looking at him whether he was leading the tournament or about to miss the cut. It seemed like it was all the same to Fred Couples.
Finally, the situation got so noticeable, it came to the attention of the great Pope of golf, Jack Nicklaus, himself.
Now, nobody ever had any trouble telling when Jack Nicklaus was on the spoor of first money. He got that look in his eye of a tank commander who had the enemy surrounded and was in no mood to take prisoners.
Fred Couples looked as if he was reading a book.
So, Jack scolded him. Publicly. In print.
Jack didn't think he was a disgrace. Just that he was wasting a great talent. Jack had undertaken to chiding all the young golfers who were satisfied with making the money list instead of the winners' list.
"Fred Couples," Jack said. "Now, here's a guy with tremendous talent. But you never see him doing much."
Lots of guys would resent being singled out. But Couples was, on the whole, flattered. It was almost as if he said, "Jack, you noticed!"
"Look at it this way," Fred explains. "He cared enough to mention me by name."
Is it all really a matter of indifference to Fred Couples? Is Boom Boom really Ho Hum Couples?
Couples, playing in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic down here, likes 3s on his card as well as the next man. "I don't go around out there not caring when I hit a bad shot," he says.
"I don't think I'm the most aggressive player in the world. I wouldn't say I'm your basic ferocious competitor. I don't get this look in my eyes when I'm one shot off the lead.
"But I don't throw away shots. I don't hit for the fat part of the green, the safe way to the hole. I don't go fishing. I play 26, 28 tournaments a year. I try to win every one of them."
Would he win more if he were more deeply motivated? Would it help if he didn't go from green to tee flipping a ball casually into the air, even after a double bogey? Does he have to learn to hate a golf course, want revenge on a hole that shuffled him down the money list?
"I've won three tournaments," Couples points out. "That's not Jack Nicklaus' pace. Or Arnold Palmer's. But you got to remember, you're talking about the greatest players in the history of the game."
Why wouldn't a guy whose nickname is Boom Boom want to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game? After all, he's got past the hard part--length off the tee. He was sixth in driving distance--276.8 yards--last year.
"I don't concentrate on majors," he says. "I suppose I do get lazy out there sometimes. But, part of this game is cerebral. You learn as you play. I don't think I'm slovenly."
He hits a bad shot because he's careless--but not carefree. There's an important difference, Boom Boom says.
"I'm only 28. It isn't as if my bad years were behind me."
Will Boom Boom go bust? Not likely. Talent is a good way to start any tournament. If Jack Nicklaus thinks you're not living up to it when you've won three tournaments already, you've probably got it to burn.
Freddy Couples' task now is to see to it he doesn't--burn it, that is.