Coolest Golfers

As Fred Couples enters the Hall of Fame, we salute the people in the game who have it (and by know it when you see it)

May 2013

Cool as an aesthetic, owes its origin to jazz. Hot jazz was fast, showy, eager-to-please, and the eventual response to it--cool jazz--appeared effortless, aloof and unconcerned with your opinion: Think of Miles Davis playing "So What."

If Fred Couples has a family crest, its Latin motto might be Quid Tum--"So What?" It was his guiding ethos from the very start. Or so it looked from outside the ropes. In 1985, when Michael Jackson was the No. 1 artist in the world, a one-gloved icon of cool, Fred Couples was a no-gloved prodigy who said he didn't aspire to be the No. 1 golfer in the world. His aim, he said, was "fifth-best."

Of course, Couples became No. 1 anyway, without appearing to try too hard or care too much, and his May induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame has less to do with his lone major championship than it does with Couples' status as perhaps the coolest golfer who ever lived.

When he won the Masters in 1992, golf "seemed really,really easy," Couples said.We took his word for it, because Couples--like most cool people--was hard to reach, and not just figuratively. He famously declared, "I don't like answering the phone because there might be someone on the other end." Or as John Updike wrote of Ted Williams: "Gods don't answer letters."

Gods don't write letters, either, and Couples communicated in Zen koans, at once simple and inscrutable, not unlike his swing: so smooth, like a man scooping soft vanilla ice cream. And yet almost impossible to replicate. This physical elegance is a big part of cool. As Robert Wagner said of Fred Astaire: "He was just as graceful on the golf course as he was on the dance floor."

Couples had grace under pressure, the pulse of a hibernating Kodiak. The phrase "laid-back" became a formal title, attaching itself to his name in nearly every story and broadcast. It was an honorific, like Judge or Coach or Doctor: Laid-Back Fred Couples.

Cool is not wanting it too much, not outwardly, and Couples never appeared to be driven--though he was frequently driven to the course, by his caddie or his wife. Gods don't do road rage, and rage was a word never associated with Couples.

He had the languid pastimes of a cold-war spy--he was a constant gardener, like his father, a groundskeeper at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Fred was handsome, too, as fortune-kissed as Fonzie himself. For a while, every jukebox Couples pounded seemed to play his favorite record.


Ben Hogan, 1954.
Photo: Loomis Dean/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Consider how Couples' approach to the 12th hole at the '92 Masters stuck in the steep embankment before the green instead of rolling back into the water like every other ball in the history of that tournament had done before (and has done since). His opposite in fortune, Greg Norman, once said: "The luckiest golfer I've known is Freddie Couples."

Couples was, as far as the public knew, a Frat-Pack Sinatra, breezing through life, fingers snapping, singing "Luck Be a Lady." It wasn't always so, of course. Couples was touched by personal tragedy, both ex-wives dying young.

But on a golf course, Couples always looked--in the words of Billie Holiday's cool-jazz classic--"Fine and Mellow," forever cool, living in the shade of an omnipresent visor.

Is couples the coolest golfer of all time? The coolest writer on golf submits that Cary Grant was. "There's never been a golfer, or even another human, as cool as Cary Grant," says Dan Jenkins. "I don't know that he played golf. I just mention him as the example against which any 'cool guy' must be measured."

The game's unearned but longstanding reputation as a sport for squares--and its propensity for enraging anyone who plays it--makes it doubly difficult for any golfer to become an exemplar of cool. And in fact Cary Grant, it turns out, did not play the game, except in "Bringing Up Baby," in which his character says: "My dear young lady, I'm not losing my temper, I'm merely trying to play some golf."

But many of our coolest screen actors did play. Humphrey Bogart was a better actor than golfer--given his nickname, he could hardly be otherwise--but Bogey loved to play, and the sycamore guarding the 12th green at Riviera is still known as "Bogey's Tree."

Even Bogart (or Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe) was marginally less cool than Sean Connery (or James Bond). In the case of Connery/Bond, it's difficult to say where one stops and the other begins. It was Connery, not Bond, who had locker number 007 at the Moscow City Golf Club in the days of the Soviet Union. It was Bond, not Connery, who played Auric Goldfinger in a memorable round of golf in 1964 at the Stoke Park course in Buckinghamshire. (Goldfinger played a Slazenger 1 ball, Bond a British-made Penfold Heart.)

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