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BILL PLASCHKE

Fred Couples' Masters is off to a vintage start

At 54, Fred Couples is five strokes off the lead at two under par after two rounds of his 30th Masters appearance. And to some fans, he's eternally young.

April 11, 2014|Bill Plaschke
  • Fred Couples, 54, is making a play at the Masters after finishing two-under par following Friday's round of the tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
Fred Couples, 54, is making a play at the Masters after finishing two-under… (Tannen Maury / EPA )

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The old guy walks through the hallowed grounds, his hair gray, his golf shoes looking like white sneakers, his stare distant, and the gallery laughs.

They're not laughing at Fred Couples, they're laughing with him.

"Ah, Freddie, woo-hoo!"

He leans against his club between shots as if supporting his bad back. He swings quickly as if it hurts to stand over the ball. Earlier this week he took to the course without shaving, so by the end of his round, his tanned face was filled with gray whiskers and age.

"You get 'em, Freddie, hee-haw."

There are plenty of crazy things about a 54-year-old man trying to tame Augusta National in a Masters tournament that traditionally feasts on its senior golfers as if they were early-bird specials.

PHOTOS: 2014 Masters Golf Tournament

Perhaps the craziest thing of all is that Couples, five strokes off the lead at two under par after Friday's second round, actually thinks he can pull it off.

"Can I win it? Yeah," he said after shooting a second consecutive 71 with careful, precise shot-making marred only by a couple of missed putts. "That's why I'm here. … Come over here tomorrow night and if I play well … then I'll answer that question again."

Can he win it? One could only hope. One would have to pray. One would have a better chance buying a winning Mega Millions ticket.

"Am I the oldest-looking 54-year-old out here?" Couples asked earlier this week with a laugh.

No, but there's no 54-year-old facing longer odds. Couples is playing here because he won this tournament once, but that was 22 years ago. He's a Champions Tour guy who has not played regularly on the PGA Tour in five years, has not won a PGA Tour event in 11 years, and entered this tournament as the 521st-ranked golfer in the world.

Couples is more than twice as old as one of his competitors on the leaderboard, Jordan Spieth. When Couples won his only Masters, current leader Bubba Watson was in middle school. Even the oldest player to win a Masters, Jack Nicklaus in 1986, was eight years younger.

"I'm not here just to play golf and think that I can't compete on this course," Couples said. "I can't compete with these guys over a year, but on one week I can compete."

True, he has been in the top 10 after the first two days of the tournament for each of the previous four years. But, also true, he has worn down over the weekend, and wound up finishing in the top 10 only once.

He gets tired. He loses focus. He admits it.

"For me, personally, it's hard to play as well every day, every hole because I'm no longer 35 years old," he said.

But after Friday, there is once again hope, the sort of hope that makes the many older fans here lean against the ropes and laugh with Couples as if hoping to somehow catch a bit of his magic.

To them, he's not Fred, he's Freddie, eternally young even though this is his 30th Masters appearance.

"These people have been watching him play a long time," said Mark Chaney, his caddie. "People enjoy the way he plays. People enjoy the way he enjoys it."

Couples loves it here so much, he can essentially play it blindfolded. Chaney, for example, was hired just this week. They had never before worked together. Who makes that kind of move shortly before such a big tournament? Somebody who doesn't need a caddy here, that's who.

"I'll give him the yards and the wind, but very rarely will he ask for a club," said Chaney. "He's very comfortable here."

Couples is delightfully like a fussy old man. He repairs others' divots, cleans up others' tees. After hitting his drive on No. 17 into the trees Friday, he calmly and personally rearranged a row of folding chairs before taking his next shot. His best shots Friday weren't his four birdies, but the several times he coolly recovered to save par.

"It's a really, really hard course," said Couples. "And when you panic and then try and do a couple of things because Oh God, I was tied for the lead or in second, now I'm in 12th place. And then you try and hit a shot and it doesn't work out and you go to 18th place. You can't do that."

That's a perfect description of what can happen to even the world's best player here. Couples doesn't want it to happen to him. Couples knows what everyone is thinking, and he doesn't want to give them the satisfaction.

They think he is one of the sacrificial lambs. That's how Couples refers to all the aging former champions who are invited back here to play every year. They are feted at the Champions Dinner, embraced by the fans, then disappear two days later with an astronomical score.

Ben Crenshaw finished last after the first two days here with a 24-over-par 168. Tom Watson and Craig Stadler scored a 159. Couples said he is not ready for that yet. More than trying to prove something to the young competitors, to the fans, to the tournament itself, Woo-hoo Freddie is fighting to prove something to himself.

"When that day stops, then I can be a sacrificial lamb around here and just walk around," he said. "But really, personally, I feel like I can play this course."

But really, personally, if he actually wins?

"A second win here would be — I have no idea — I don't know — I never — I don't think about it," he said, shaking his head. "When you start thinking about that you kind of go crazy."

Kind of go crazy, huh? Here's kind of hoping that happens.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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