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Death and Life

Couples Loses Parents, but His Girlfriend/Wife Beats Cancer

October 29, 1998|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The problem with Fred Couples is that he makes golf appear so darned easy. Couples looks as though he doesn't have a care in the world as he walks down the fairway, a portrait of nonchalance, swinging his club at the ground as if he's aiming at small bugs or weeds or tufts of grass or something.

His golf swing is so liquid, you could pour it. His game is so effortless, golf balls seem to jump into the hole as if they're allergic to light. His life . . . let's just say it has taken a lot more work to get that straightened out.

The largely uncomplicated life of Fred Couples started unraveling in the worst way four years ago when his mother died of cancer three weeks after her condition was diagnosed. Violet Couples died on Mother's Day of 1994. Then last Thanksgiving, Couples' father, Tom, died of leukemia after a long struggle. His girlfriend, Thais Bren, was found to have breast cancer last year. She beat it and is now Mrs. Couples.

With so much going on, no one would have blinked if Couples had been affected on the golf course this year. It would have been understandable if Couples shut down emotionally and his game simply fell apart all at once.

But that's not what happened. Couples, who is playing in the Tour Championship this weekend in Atlanta, the final tour event of the year, has won the most money in his 18 years on the PGA Tour--nearly $1.6 million. He won two tournaments, one of them the Bob Hope, which he basically got ready for by not playing for two months. He also won the Memorial, finished second twice (including the Masters), had five top-three finishes in 15 tournaments and his scoring average of 69.77 was topped by only eight players.

How did he do it? Couples really doesn't know.

"All I know is that I did well when things were not in order," he said. "I have a good sense in putting things aside. Being this 'cold' guy, like nothing bothered me. Well, it did."

As horrible as it was to lose his mother, that was four years ago, and Couples has had enough time to adjust. Since his father's death was the more recent loss, Couples needed to develop a way to cope or he risked simply not being able to come to grips with it.

Couples said he knew his dad wasn't going to get any better.

"They gave him six months to live, and he made it a little longer. That was really tough to stand, watching the time go, waiting. It went from three months to two and then to one month. And he was still there. It was so hard. I felt it. I hurt. I'm not some unemotional guy. Everyone has got a father. I'm no different."

Because of his dad's illness, Couples pulled out of the Skins Game and basically stopped playing golf for a while. His first tournament of the year was the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a 90-hole birdie extravaganza on four courses with amateur partners playing until Sunday.

It's either a great way to start since the courses are so easy or it's tough because of all the distractions and it's so early in the season. Whatever, Couples started with a 63, closed with three consecutive rounds of 66 and beat Bruce Lietzke in a playoff.

It was the first tournament that Thais had seen. Couples would call his victory "a fluke," but now he's not so sure.

"To win that was a blessing. . . . Somebody was looking after me."

At 39, Couples hasn't changed all that much on the outside from when he was that kid from Seattle, who went to the University of Houston and turned pro on a whim.

He was the easygoing, gifted 21-year-old who graduated from qualifying school in 1980, made his debut as a pro in 1981 and went on to win 14 times since. In 1992, Couples had his best year when he won three times, including the Masters, after his tee shot on the par-three 12th on Sunday stuck on the bank short of the green and somehow didn't roll back into the water.

Maybe somebody was looking after him then too. Some believe Couples should have won a lot more times, a standard line of criticism that Couples has endured for years. But he doesn't let it bother him, probably because that's the normal curse for someone who makes it look easy, who looks as though nothing bothers him . . . even when it does.

That's why winning the Hope was so special. He had Thais with him. He hadn't played in months. He couldn't stop thinking about his father. And he won the tournament.

"When you do that, you have to kind of giggle," he said. "I think of karma. I think of a lot of neat things."

This represented a clear departure in attitude from the year before, when he wound up No. 55 on the money list, his second-worst finish in 11 years. His father was dying.

"My father would say 'Go play.' I knew I probably wasn't going to see him as I should . . . like every two months. I didn't feel guilty, but he knew I was doing stuff with Thais."

Couples and Bren went to Switzerland for cancer treatment, and Bren wound up beating her illness. Tom Couples didn't.

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