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Drive, He Said : Boom! : From the Tee, Fred Couples Is Long and Straight. But Can the Fans' Favorite Get a Grip on His Goals?

September 05, 1993|JEFF SILVERMAN | Hollywood-based Jeff Silverman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, says he can find water on a desert golf course every time

Freddie Couples, the matinee idol of golf, has just three-putted for bogey from the fringe off the 18th at Riviera, so . . . .

Boom!

Despite a blistering 67 in the penultimate round of the 1993 Los Angeles Open, Couples has lost a stroke that minutes before had seemed safer than a federally insured deposit. The coolest cucumber on the fairway still holds a share of the lead--he would lose it the next day to Tom Kite--but he isn't happy. You might just say he's teed off.

The condition is barely visible. It's not as if he's breaking brassies over his knee or howling curses to the breezes. His face isn't racked with pain. No, that wouldn't be Fred Couples, a.k.a. the carefree couch potato of professional sports; the phlegmatic enigma with the effortless swing and the effortless walk and the effortless style but no goals, no direction, no emotions and less internal drive than an electric cart on drained batteries; an athlete so laid back it's a wonder he doesn't tip over; a fellow who's been known to explain--when he has the energy to finish a sentence--that he doesn't pick up a ringing telephone because there's probably someone on the other end.

But, as he tends to his post-round business on Riviera's practice range . . .

Boom!

. . . the sound of self-flagellation is unmistakable. Here, the winner of this tournament in 1990 and 1992 and reigning PGA Player of the Year two years running can give slip to the expectations, the doubts, the disappointments, the worshipers, the glad-handers, the naysayers, the autograph seekers, the divorce lawyers and the missed putts--oh, those missed putts! Here, protected by the Maginot Line of a yellow rope, he can do what he has a knack for doing better than just about anyone else on the planet: shutting out the world, unsheathing golf's sweetest swing, beating some balls and, in his own stoic way, beating back the frustrations of the most frustrating game ever conjured by evil Druids.

As he works down his bag from the woods through the long irons, the tensions and pressures of a stroke handed back on a less-than-silver putter in a year that has begun neither personally nor professionally on quite a par with the annus mirabilis that preceded it are audible . . .

Boom!

. . . in the whip and impact of every gracefully perfect swing. Unfocused? Unemotional? Directionless? Carefree? Hell, the way Couples is on attack, they can probably feel the reverb . . . .

Boom!

. . . out in Catalina.

"I will lay it on the line," he would tell me several months later in the empty bar of a hotel in Oak Brook, Ill., after the second round of the Western Open, when I reminded him of that missed putt and the display that followed of a man possessed. "I think golf can really make you mental. It can really cause problems. Nobody sees it, but sometimes I go crazy inside. Other than that," he says through a smile rather too cherubic for a 33-year-old professional athlete, "I think it's pretty easy."

Boom Boom. That's what they call him. Because Frederick Stephen Couples hits it hard . On the strength of the image those syllables evoke, a star was born in a sport in need of a post-Jack Nicklaus personality. Enter Boom Boom. Reluctantly. He never sought heir-apparency. He doesn't crave the title King of Swing. All he wants to do is play his game.

That Couples doesn't care much for the nickname that attached itself to him in the early '80s not long after he left the University of Houston and turned pro is no surprise, but there's not much he can do about it; it's just there. It draws attention the way the long, crisp drives he boom booms down the fairway draw attention, and there's not much he can do about them either. They are part of his game, and his game is both a reflection of his essence--relaxed and solitary--and its antithesis--powerful and public.

Now, as Couples prepares to join his 11 American teammates Sept. 24-26 at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, for the biennial Ryder Cup matches against their European counterparts, the attention of the golf universe, whether he likes it or not, will again be squarely on his broad, limber shoulders. The three-day event, made up of both two-man team competitions and individual clashes in match-play format, is unlike any other in professional golf. Officially instituted in 1927, it continues to recall the glorious past of sport for sport's sake. There is no prize money at stake--only the pride that comes in competing for national honor. And the pressures, especially on the last day, are immense.

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