Fred Couples hits his tee shot on the sixth hole during the second round of… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
It shouldn't be as easy as Fred Couples makes it look. And it isn't.
That made Friday another day of contradictions for one of golf's more popular players.
He shot a five-under-par 66 at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club and was the 36-hole leader. He strolled the fairways as he always does, with confidence and a smile. His gallery grew like a snowball, rolling downhill. They loved him and he hugged them back with three birdies and an eagle.
The sweet, signature swing that pauses at the top, makes a little loop and then strikes the ball as cleanly as any in the game was in fine form. If he played basketball, he'd be Silk Wilkes. Watching him take the club back and bring it through is like eating whip cream.
Playing a golf course that leaves even the best players in the world mumbling into their post-round cocktail, Couples not only went bogey free, but got the juices — his and his fans — going early with a 100-foot eagle putt on the first hole.
Yes, there is a "but" coming here.
Couples is 51 years old. He is playing a handful of events on the PGA Tour and spending the bulk of his time on the Champions Tour, which is a nice, politically correct label for a tour of golfers age 50 and above. Age is not on Couples' side on the main tour. Players above 50 occasionally win, but the main tour, like most things in sports, is the domain of the young.
It's more than age fighting against Couples in his quest to win a third title in a tournament that has gone from sponsor to sponsor and name to name, but is still the L.A. Open to most fans.
Couples has a bad back. That's not news. He's had it for so long that it is part of every story about him: "Freddie Couples, playing with a bad back, shot a … " He has been No. 1 in the world, won the Masters in 1992, won two Tournament Players titles and won four titles on the Champions Tour last year. But the second paragraph almost always is the bad back.
"It's like a toothache," he says, presenting a perfect explanatory image.
Although certainly tired of talking about it, Couples will do so when appropriate. Being eight under par and the tournament leader made it so Friday.
"I don't practice," he says. "I hit balls before I play and then I go play golf."
His practice-range routine before a tournament round furthers the story. He hits only drivers and five-woods or rescue clubs. No irons.
"I refuse to bend over and try to hit wedges or nine-irons," he says. "And it's OK."
He says he really doesn't call what he does warming up.
"It's just waiting for my tee time," he says.
He says he hasn't hit balls after a round since sometime last year and adds that rounds such as Friday's leave him fatigued and ready to put his feet up for a couple of hours and watch TV.
Don't mistake any of this for dissatisfaction with his current situation. Couples feels about Riviera like a 10-year-old feels about an ice cream cone. He even skipped the defense of a Champions Tour title in Naples, Fla., this week to play at Riviera.
"This is a very, very special spot to me, and I love playing here," he says. "When I get a little older, there will be Naples every year to play."
Couples says he has played Riviera "probably 150 times or more," says he knows every nook and cranny and "could play this course blindfolded." But that doesn't mean he shrugged off his 68-66 start.
"I'd be lying to say I'm not shocked to be eight under," he says.
By early afternoon, the clouds had gotten thicker —- forerunners to the heavy rains that would hit by midafternoon — and the temperature had dropped noticeably as Couples made his way up the fairway on the legendary 18th hole. His drive had screamed well above the big hill that faces the tee and gone 295 yards down the right center. Not bad for a 51-year-old on a cold day.
Or his second shot, he stood 180 yards out, frighteningly close to the spot he stood during the last round at Riviera two years ago. Then, he was playing with eventual winner Phil Mickelson, but with a chance to win himself.
"Phil left his shot about 100 feet away," Couples recalls now, "and I remember saying, 'Wow, I just need to get it close.' And then I shanked it."
No shanks Friday. This time, he hit it 16 feet to the left and slid his birdie putt a sliver past on the left.
The nice-sized gallery gave him a deserved ovation. He smiled and tipped his cap, letting the now graying hair fly in the wind. The greenside scoreboard told most of the story: Tournament leader Fred Couples. Eight under par.
Left unsaid was the real challenge ahead for this senior citizen.
No, not two more rounds. The 100-foot climb to Riviera's clubhouse, and the official scorer's room.
Couples made it. We will see about Saturday and Sunday.