FieldsNovember 2, 2010

Two-Man Race

Fred Couples' pursuit of Bernhard Langer in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup will be the dominant storyline at the season finale

Langer denied Couples a win in his hometown at the U.S. Senior Open.

Langer denied Couples a win in his hometown at the U.S. Senior Open.

The Champions Tour, going back to the days when players were still armed with persimmon and balata, has had a recurring theme: When one golfer tries to separate himself from the competition, someone else usually is right there with him. Think Miller Barber and Don January, Gary Player and Bob Charles, Lee Trevino and Dave Stockton, Jim Colbert and Bob Murphy, Hale Irwin and Gil Morgan, Jay Haas and Loren Roberts. In senior golf, the best often come in pairs.

That's where Bernhard Langer

and Fred Couples

come in.

Langer, 53, and Couples, 51, haven't been the only stories on the Champions Tour in 2010, but their play has been a persistent and intriguing part of the plot. Langer sits atop the money list and Charles Schwab points list after winning five tournaments -- including back-to-back majors -- and accumulating nine other top-10s in 22 events. Couples has four victories and four runner-up finishes (two in majors) among his 12 top-10s in 16 starts and is No. 2 in money and points.

It is logical, then, that the duo will be front and center this week in San Francisco for the final event of the season, the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, which has relocated to Harding Park GC after a seven-year run at Sonoma (Calif.) GC. Couples will have pleasant vibes at the venerable municipal course after having captained the United States to victory in the Presidents Cup there last year, and the man with the bad back could use all the good karma he can find.

While Langer's victories at the Senior British Open and U.S. Senior Open in consecutive weeks this summer make it difficult to imagine anyone else as player of the year, Couples does have a chance to pass Langer in Schwab points and win the $1 million annuity that is being offered for the 10th year.

The math is simple. Because Couples trails Langer (whose five wins are the most on the Champions Tour since Craig Stadler won five in 2004) by 582 points, he has to win at Harding Park, where double points will be awarded, to move to the top of the Schwab standings. No one else, including No. 3-ranked Russ Cochran, can overtake Langer, even with a victory, regardless of where Langer finishes in the 30-man field.

Even if Couples wins the tournament, Langer will still prevail in the points competition by finishing in a two-way tie for fourth or better. Particularly if that scenario were to unfold, it will be impossible not to look back at two shots involving Couples -- one he hit, and one that he didn't -- during the 2010 season.

At the Senior PGA Championship, Couples rallied furiously on the final nine holes at Colorado GC outside Denver with two fabulous par-5 approaches setting up two six-foot eagle putts. Tied with David Frost and Tom Lehman at seven-under 281 after 72 holes, however, Couples yanked his drive 20 yards left under a bush on the first playoff hole, his double bogey losing to Lehman's par.

Two months later, Couples shot a third-round 65 at difficult Sahalee CC near Seattle to pull into a tie with Langer after 54 holes of the U.S. Senior Open. When he birdied the first hole Sunday to take a one-stroke lead, to the delight of about 30,000 spectators rooting hard for their native son, Couples looked like the man to beat. But on the par-5 second hole, his ball resting in light rough 227 yards from the flagstick, Couples decided against hitting his 19-degree hybrid. With a pond fronting the green, he played it extremely safe, laying up in the fairway about 70 yards out.

Because Couples had been tearing up par 5s all season, it seemed an oddly conservative strategy. When Couples then fatted his third shot into the water and went on to make an 8 to Langer's 4, the complexion of the tournament -- and in some ways, the season -- changed.

The hometown hero played hard the rest of that Sunday afternoon, but Langer, despite having few in the gallery on his side, played just as hard. He shot a sterling 67 and finished at eight-under 272, three shots ahead of Couples, whose post-round lament about his costly triple bogey still resonates. "Going down the third hole, I was asking my caddie if I've ever laid up on a par 5," Couples said that afternoon. "If I could walk out there tomorrow, I would go for the green, no matter where I hit it. I think I would beat 8, that's for sure."

Lesson learned, Couples doesn't figure to be playing it safe on the three par 5s at Harding Park. But that doesn't mean it still won't be Langer who does the schooling in San Francisco.