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It's not easy being Fred

Despite his laid-back image, Fred Couples aches in his back and in life

March 2008

It was surreal and familiar all at once: just Fred Couples and me in a cart, rolling down emerald fairways on a perfect California desert morning with the Indian Wells Resort Celebrity Course -- where in four days he would play in the Skins Game for the 14th time -- all to ourselves.

Surreal because Couples is often the top choice in surveys that ask the question, "With which golfer would you most like to play 18 holes?" Familiar because the outward normalcy and lack of pretension that make him so easy to like created instant comfort.

There was also a sense of nostalgia at seeing the trademark mannerisms: the graceful walk, the limb-loosening gyrations, the utterly placid expression while following an utterly perfect drive. Fred Couples has been away from golf's big stage for a long while, with no lack of formidable forces conspiring against his ever making it back.

Not surprisingly, Couples wasn't bothered by my flared tee shots and fatted irons, and after the odd good one, he'd offer a "Nice shot" in the same nasal tone that I'd heard him use to compliment Phil Mickelson during their final-round duel at the 2006 Masters. Once, after I'd caught a solid drive on a blind, downhill dogleg, we crested a hill and saw two balls, one 30 yards behind the other. As we approached the first one and I remarked that it was surely mine, he responded, in all seriousness, "Now how do you know that?" The ball was indeed mine, and it had gotten about as close to one of his drives as I would get all day. Very Fred.

"You know, I would never not tell some guy 'Nice shot' just to bypass him," offers Couples, employing the odd word choice that helps make his sentences inimitable. "Even with a guy who annoys me a little but not a lot, I might not talk as much, but I'll still say, 'Nice shot.' "

Of course, Couples also happens to be supremely gifted. Even at 48, with graying hair and a trick back that keeps him from doing anything resembling strength training, the breadth of his shoulders and calves suggest an extraordinary power plant, one fully realized in the instant he gathers himself at the top of his driver swing and unleashes his lower body toward the target. At close range, the force of the surge reminded me of crossing the low stone bridge just short of Niagara Falls, where the impossibly fast and thick rush of water just below created the unsettling feeling of being pulled toward the drop-off. In Couples' case, the sudden violence gives way to a slippery quick and complete clearing of the left hip, allowing him the space and time for the syrupy tempo that lets him butter or bash the ball as he pleases.

"To me, that move makes Fred the athlete/golfer," says instructor Jim McLean, who after measuring more than 200 PGA Tour pros found that Couples and John Daly moved the left hip the greatest distance forward on the downswing: 19 inches -- a full six inches farther than the tour average. It's the kind of extraordinary physical act that gets the attention of other professional athletes, who are always most fascinated by the things they can't do. Says Golf Digest/Golf World Senior Writer Bob Verdi, a sports columnist at The Chicago Tribune for the past 30 years: "All I know is that whenever top guys from every other sport care about golf at all, the guy they all want to know about and meet is Fred."

Couples is hard-wired to be embarrassed by such singling out, and being asked about it is likely to start him on one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness rambles that usually leaves the questioner too puzzled to follow up. It's axiomatic in PGA Tour pressrooms that the less Couples wants to say about something, the more words he will use. Conversely, he was never more eloquent than after flushing his 3-iron to the 13th green during the third round of the 1998 Masters. Entranced as the ball homed in on the flagstick, Couples brought chills to the television audience when the boom mike caught him intoning, "Oh, baby!"

THE FLIP SIDE

The talent, the good looks, the common touch and the sheer ease: They're why Couples so often has been considered Mr. Lucky, the man everyone would trade lives with. But the truth is, it would be a Faustian bargain that would include divorces, paralyzing back pain, migraines, early parental passings, episodes of debilitating inertia and sundry "blunders" (another Couples pet word).

When Bernard Darwin titled his autobiography, The World that Fred Made, he referred to the family gardener whose seeming ability to fix all problems helped imbue Darwin with a lifelong optimism. Couples is an avid gardener who learned the basics watching his father do the groundskeeping at a Seattle zoo. But except for golf, Couples' adult life has been a tangle of vines.

At the moment, Couples is in a now-two-year divorce proceeding from his wife, Thais, whom he married in September 1998 after meeting her at that year's Nissan Open at Riviera. Only a couple of weeks after they had started to date, Thais was diagnosed with breast cancer. Couples accompanied her through aggressive treatments at clinics in Switzerland and Chicago. The cancer went into remission, and in the following years Fred said he had found the love of his life, as well as the joy of being a stepfather to Thais' children from a previous marriage, GiGi and Oliver, both now teenagers. But behind the public idyll the relationship foundered. Then, shortly after Couples had moved out of their sprawling Santa Barbara estate in 2005, doctors found that Thais' cancer had returned. For several months, Fred lived in Scottsdale with another woman with whom he'd had a long friendship. After that relationship ended, last March he and Thais, whose health has improved, tried to get back together. But Couples moved out again in October and has been living alone in La Quinta.

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