A hard-thrown baseball hit him right in the face. That’s when he first sensed something was askew.
Fred Couples was one hell of a baseball player as a kid—so good that he played for his father, Tom, in a league for youngsters several years older than Fred. When he was found out and ruled too young to play, Couples spent that entire summer at Jefferson Park Golf Course near the family’s home in Seattle, and his superior hand-eye coordination was put to use in a way that eventually led to his Hall of Fame golf career.
In college, at the University of Houston, Couples awed his friends even when he wasn’t on a golf course. In intramural softball, no matter how deep outfielders were positioned, Couples could blast it over their heads. He was a dead-eye long-range shooter in pickup basketball. “His athleticism is ridiculous … off the charts,” Paul Marchand, a teaching professional who was one of Couples’ teammates at Houston, once said.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s, when Couples already was several years into dealing with the back injury that first flared up at the 1994 Doral Open in Miami. Couples doesn’t recall exactly how old he was, maybe 41 or 42, but he remembers the blow to the face. He was playing catch with his caddie, Joe LaCava, who has a pretty good arm.
“Joey could bring it, and he throws this ball right directly at me,” Couples began. “Up to this point, I’ve never had trouble catching any ball he’s thrown. But all of them are more off to one side or the other. This one, however, is going straight here [he puts his hand in front of his face.] I go to catch it and only get a part of it, and it nails me. And I’m thinking, What the hell was that?
“I always used to travel with my ball glove, and we’d throw it around to unwind. I don’t remember that incident, but I do remember him having a bit of trouble catching balls as he got older,” said LaCava, who now caddies for Tiger Woods. “It was weird because I knew he was a great baseball player. He’s a great athlete. He had to be to keep playing at such a high level.”
Although Couples has seen an eye specialist regularly since that day, the condition hasn’t improved. Fortunately, it hasn’t become appreciably worse, either. Essentially, he struggles to focus at a fixed point or object directly in front of him, which is how he missed that baseball coming straight at him. His landscape vision is fine. The ball didn't cause the issue. It just revealed it.
Have to wonder if there is any correlation between the onset of the problem and the fact that the last of his 15 PGA Tour titles came in 2003 at the Shell Houston Open.
“When I’m driving and I look straight, when I play golf and I’m walking, I see everything,” Couples told the Akron Beacon Journal two weeks ago when he played in the Bridgestone Senior Players at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, his first competition since he missed the cut in the Masters. “But when I put my head down and turn to look at the hole when I’m on that swivel, I’m really struggling with one of my eyes, and it’s just hard to putt.
“When I stand behind the putt and both eyes are staring at the ball and the hole, I read the putts perfectly. But when I get over it, then the tilt of my head, I just lose a little depth perception and the feel of what the putt’s going to do. I know it’s a cup to the right of the hole, I just can’t get the ball to go there nine out of 10 times.”
Makes you wonder how he would even want to play golf.
There are other challenges on the course. Like the simple act of replacing a ball on the green after he has marked it. Couples demonstrates. He casually throws a coin on the ground on the Firestone driving range and then squats down. He tries to place an imaginary ball in front of it. He explains why it takes him a long time.
“People probably think I’m being extra careful, but I’m looking at the coin and I can’t put the ball down because I can’t quite get the coin in focus,” he said. “So, I’m all over the place. Eventually I get it there, but it’s really hard.”
One of the game’s most popular players with his cool demeanor and elegant and powerful swing, Couples was this year’s Ambassador of Golf, the award presented annually by FirstEnergy Foundation (formerly Northern Ohio Golf Charities). Last year, his former Houston teammate, CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, received the award at what was the last edition of the World Golf Championship event at Firestone. The WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, being played this week in Memphis, supplanted it. Bridgestone agreed to a four-year deal to sponsor the Senior Players.
This week, Couples is at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, in England, competing in the Senior Open Championship, the year’s final major on the PGA Tour Champions. Couples won the title in 2012, one of his 13 senior victories. He opened with a three-over-par 73 while paired with Colin Montgomerie and Retief Goosen, who won the Senior Players at Firestone.
After knocking the rust off for three days, Couples fired a final-round one-under 69 at Firestone’s South Course to finish T-22, which represents his worst finish in six senior events this year. Three times he’s finished in the top 10. Imagine what he could do if he could see better.
“I don’t ever think like that,” said the former world No. 1 golfer. “You know, with my back I’m just happy that I’m even playing a little at this point.”
After the Senior Open, Couples plans to compete in a handful of other events. In December, he’ll be one of the assistant captains for Tiger Woods in the Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Australia, where in 2011 the U.S. team won the second of three times in a row under Couples when he was the captain. Woods, one of his captain’s picks, clinched the deciding point.
Beyond that, things get, well … fuzzy, only because Couples never knows on any given morning how good his back is feeling. He’ll play maybe four or five events. Most will be in California (his home is in Newport Beach, Calif.), so he doesn’t have to get on a plane. That includes perhaps another appearance in September at the Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., on the PGA Tour.
The Masters, which he won in 1992, is a maybe in 2020, but it’s hard to think he won’t find the inspiration to have another go in what would be his 35th appearance. He missed the cut this year—just the fourth time in his career—with rounds of 78-71, not up to the standards of a guy who has finished 20th or better at Augusta National Golf Club six times this decade—in his 50s, mind you.
He can’t practice like he used to, and, frankly, he doesn't have the desire. He’ll turn 60 on Oct. 3. But he considered it a treat to return to Firestone, one of his favorite venues, and he has rediscovered a jones for some competition.
“The Masters was such a huge disappointment for me. After that, I didn’t really want to play,” Couples said. “But now I want to play a little. I feel a little better. I’m excited about playing here these next few weeks. I mean, I’m going to Endicott, N.Y., [where the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open is being played in mid-August at En-Joie Golf Club], and I’ve never been to Endicott in my life. What does that tell you?”
It tells us that Fred Couples has a little life left in his golf career. His vision remains a hindrance, but what does that matter? Just as long as he sees himself enjoying it as best he can.