NAPLES, Fla. -- To those who have competed against him on the Champions Tour, there wasn't much surprise when 51-year-old Fred Couples appeared on top of the leader board Friday at the Northern Trust Open, which he is playing instead of defending his 2010 ACE Group Classic title.
"It's his favorite course," said Jay Haas.
"He just loves Riviera," said Bernhard Langer.
"That golf course, you have to have some power and some length and some local knowledge, and he certainly has that," said Mark O'Meara.
This is one of the rare times when the winner of a Champions Tour is skipping an event he won the previous year. Privately some players grumbled about Couples' decision, and O'Meara said he would not have bypassed a tournament where he was the defending champion.
"It's difficult [but] I would have come back and defended, but that's just me," said O'Meara, while acknowledging that Couples' history at Riviera and affinity for it made it a tough call.
Couples would have had to play very well if he had been competing against his age-group peers Friday. Langer and Russ Cochran shot eight-under 64s at The Quarry to take the first-round lead, with O'Meara one stroke behind. Even though it's not a gallery-friendly course - players who aren't using carts are shuttled from green to tee on 10 holes - there was a good crowd on hand for the first round.
Couples' decision to play on the PGA Tour this week is another example of how the Champions Tour has changed through the years. Once players turn 50, if they have the skills and the inclination, they can and do make appearances on the PGA Tour.
"I played on the European and PGA tours for so many years and I don't miss it," Langer said. "I like what I find out here [on the Champions Tour]. But Fred Funk and Tom Pernice ... they're still excited about out going out to the PGA Tour and trying some of the tournaments there. So everyone's different. That's good. But I'm not surprised Freddie's leading [the Northern Trust] because he's got the game to compete anywhere. He's long enough. He likes the golf course, he's done well there before, so why not, if that's what he wants to do."
No doubt while the seniors tend to business in Florida this weekend, they'll keep an eye on how one of their own is faring in California.
-- Bill Fields