December 10, 2008

Q & A With Fred Couples

Fred Couples has long been one of golf's most popular players. The 49-year-old has more than 40 victories worldwide, including the 1992 Masters and 1996 Players Championship. He will captain the U.S. team in the 2009 Presidents Cup to be played at San Francisco's Harding Park.

Couples, who is competing in Tiger Woods' upcoming Chevron World Challenge, recently sat down with Golf Digest Contributing Editor Mark Soltau.

Golf Digest: You won a million dollars this year and cracked the Top 125 on the money list, all before your recent 49th birthday. You have to feel pretty good about that?

Couples: I do. I have one goal for next year -- I've got to get into the Top 50 in the world rankings. That's the only way I can get into the Chevron World Challenge. It would take an unbelievable year.

Next year will be my 29th year (on the PGA Tour). As I get older, I look at things a little differently. One of things that I've always done -- I love to watch the other players.

We can sit here and talk about him (Tiger). I don't gush over him, but I just think that he's such an amazing guy. Maybe when he was younger, he liked the way I played. We played a lot of practice rounds. It's very tough what he does. A lot of people come up and say 'he turned me off.' For every one that gets bummed out, there are 500 that enjoy him.

I just don't know anyone like him. Jack Nicklaus is phenomenal; Arnold Palmer is my all-time favorite player by far. But Tiger Woods -- there's just something about the whole deal. I think it's just how he dominates.

Last year, I bet him (at the Target World Challenge). I took two shots from him the first day and said, 'I'll play you for $200.' I think he shot 67 and I probably shot 74. So he said, 'Just keep it. What do you want tomorrow?' I said, 'Two shots.' He beat me again. The third day, he beat me again. The last day, he gave me four shots and said I'll give you a break-even bet. I was so nervous. He beat me; I gave his wife $800; he snatched it out of her hands so quickly -- "That's my money."

GD: Can you talk about the upcoming Chevron World Challenge, where you will be competing for the eighth time.

Couples: The first few times, I've got in the event (qualified). The last too many times, I've been a sponsor's pick. It's still all fun and it's all great.

Tiger is unique. I don't know how many people have ever seen him hit a ball, but as a player, it's very mesmerizing for me to watch him. He's so good and does things that very few people can do. What Tiger does for golf is truly magnificent. Tiger knows how to take care of players. I'm at age (49) where Anthony Kim couldn't even be my son, he's so young.

I enjoy picking on Tiger a lot. It's very easy for me to do, because he's got nothing to worry about. If it was Phil Mickleson or Vijay (Singh) picking on him, then it becomes a little more dicey. But I can't beat the guy. The only thing I can do is out-text him.

GD: Even with a touchy back, you averaged nearly 290 yards in driving distance in 2008.

Couples:: I've always hit the ball a long ways and that's been a strength. I think I'm actually a better driver today -- that's basically just because of the equipment. In 1982-83-84, I hit the ball a long way. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, the freaks were the guys who hit a long way, besides a Jack Nicklaus. The better players were not driving it further than most people.

Now, the best players are the ones who hit it the furthest. It's strength. Some guys are actually shocked that I can still out-drive them. It's kind of a good feeling. But the problem is when I sign our card, I've got 72 and they've got 69.

GD: Your thoughts on Boo Weekley?

Couples: I have yet to be paired with him. I watch on the range a little bit -- it's a little impressive. He hits the ball a long way, but nothing out of the ordinary. But on the course, he's truly a shotmaker, which means he draws the ball, fades the ball. He has all the shots.

GD: What will you be looking for as the 2009 U.S. Presidents Cup captain.

Couples: If I could wake up next August or September and be in position to have my team, you don't want any guys slipping where you have to choose them. As soon as I was chosen, I called Tiger and talked to him for two minutes and told him, "I don't want to waste a pick on you next Presidents Cup team; I want you to make the team." Obviously, he got a big kick out of that.

Jay Haas is my assistant and my other assistant is Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan has been to every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. A long time ago I told him, 'What you do for golf is great, in my opinion, and if I was ever lucky enough to be captain of anything, you're going to be one of my assistants.' He laughed about it. He was one of the few guys I called and he said, 'You're kidding me, right?' I said, 'Just pay attention to the TV and you'll see in about two hours just how much I'm kidding.'

Of course, I said Robin Williams, too. I took a beating for that. But it was more to keep the team loose.

What Jay and I are going to do, is we have two picks we're probably going to pick two guys that will be a team. If Jim Furyk doesn't make it, I'm going to pick Jim Furyk and whoever is picked with him, they're going to play every match together. I think that's the best way of doing it.

One of few things that Jay and I laughed about was dealing with the wives. If you've got a wife and your husband is not playing, it's kind of hard to take. 'Why is he not playing?' It sounds stupid, but it's an easy thing because they're all going to play. The rest of it is cake. What I have to do on a very small budget is get them a lot of great gifts. It will make winning at Augusta look like it was 100 years ago. It will be that much fun.

GD: Do you have a backup for Robin Williams?

Couples: Apparently, he lives five minutes from Harding Park, which I had no idea. What we're hoping he will do is come into the player's lounge one night. I didn't know he does a golf skit, which I hear is unbelievable. He's my favorite comedian. I throw this stuff out there to get Tim Finchem a little bit worried. I like to keep the PGA Tour on their toes. Hopefully, Robin will come and give us a little skit one night.

GD: What is the biggest difference between playing on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams?

Couples: We win (Presidents Cup). I don't know how. We just seem to jell. It's a little less stressful. The Ryder Cup is truly the hardest week you'll have in golf. The Presidents Cup is made for the players. It's a very fun week.

GD: Was winning the 1992 Masters the highlight of your career? And is Augusta National the same course you won on?

Couples: It's my favorite tournament. It's probably the greatest thing I've done is winning there. A couple years losing to Mark O'Meara on the last putt, and then battling with Phil Mickelson, those were just as fun. Maybe the year (2006) with Mickelson, might have been better, just the way I played.

But the course, from late 80s to early 90s, it's 2,400 yards longer, there's less roars. Seventy, 71 is a good score versus 66 or 67. It's the first major, we're there every year. It's a phenomenal event. It's so much fun to play, just because of the way the course is. It's just something they have to do to make it tougher.

GD: Why does golf do such a great job of policing itself in terms of player behavior?

Couples: I think golf is so sacred that the things that John Daly does -- I'm not picking on him -- in any other sport would be so minor. It wouldn't even be a blip on the radar screen. And the greatest thing about golf and why we have all these great sponsors. When John Daly had a couple problems, you heard Tom Watson and Curtis Strange say things in the paper that ripped him. You're not just going to get some guy saying, 'Well, that's just John Daly and it's okay.' That's not going to happen in golf. We have a very tight locker room. We don't do much with guys, but if somebody makes a blunder, they're going to hear about it. I've never seen a fistfight in a locker room but I've seen a lot of guys go at other guys.

GD: Can you describe the growth and emergence of Tiger as the greatest player of his generation?

Couples: I played a practice round with Tiger in the Philippines a long time ago and I think he was still an amateur. We got up on this one hole and I thought it was fairly wide open, fairly easy and I hit driver. He hit a 1- or 2-iron and hit it a long way down there. We're going down the fairway and he goes, 'Are you going to hit driver off this tee during the tournament?' There was no out of bounds or water. I said, 'Of course I am.' He actually played pretty well that week.

Next, I saw him at Augusta and we were playing a practice round. We got to the 12th hole. I had my teacher at the tournament and I told him, 'Wow, Tiger hits it a mile, but I think he will struggle in a couple of these tournaments.' Ten years later, he's got 14 majors. That shows how quickly he has learned what he has to do. When he figures out what he has to do, he goes at it harder than anyone.

He works like no one else. Obviously, he's a great putter and he has a great short game, but he just knows how to attack a course unlike anyone. Jack Nicklaus used to over-power courses. Tiger does a little bit of over-powering, but to win these events by three, four, five, six shots -- Sunday, he never loses. I don't know how he could. He's gonna shoot 69, he's probably got a two-shot lead and he's playing with the guy, that guy's not going to beat him.

GD: How many PGA tour events will you play in 2009?

Couples: I'll be at all the tournaments next year and we'll see how it goes. If I feel good and play well, I will probably play the West Coast. After the Presidents Cup next year -- I turn 50 on Oct 3 -- the first senior event is in Houston, which is where I went to college. I don't care what I shoot. It will be nice to be inside the ropes for five days and stop the bleeding.

My goal is to be competitive. I finished in the Top 10 four times this year. None of them I had a chance to win except Houston. If I go on the Champions Tour, I know how great they play. It comes down to getting it on the hole. I would much rather be on the PGA Tour.

GD: What do you do with your back?

Couples: I had a guy, Tom Boers, that I worked with for 12 years. And then when I stopped feeling better, in 2007, I probably saw five different people. The fifth person made me feel the best and I've been seeing him a little over a year.

It could be getting out of chair where I tweak it. It's not really been hitting a drive. A downhill lie is very tough for me to reach for. Basically, I'm to a point where I've tried it all, I'm in decent golf shape, I'm certainly not a workaholic in the weight room. When I started, I was so bad, I really had nowhere to go except get healthy. I chose to continue to play ... Not one person has suggested surgery. My back is just very beat up.

GD: Talk about John Daly.

Couples: John Daly is one of the Top 10 players on the PGA Tour. He's a good friend and I love the guy to death. He's clueless on the course. If somebody could just -- it's a little late now maybe -- but he's as good as anyone playing golf. He can drive it, incredible short game ... he just can't get his mind straight.

Mark Soltau is a contributing editor to Golf Digest and the editor of TigerWoods.com.