Masters

Masters 2023: Fred Couples turns back the clock on Thursday at Augusta National. What else is new?

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Andrew Redington

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Putter raises on Thursday of a major championship would normally file under the "too soon" department, but Fred Couples was feeling way too good about the stroke he'd just made from the front right fringe off the 17th green.

Turns out, the stroke was soon deemed worthy of a five-foot-out putter point to the heavens, Couples' yellow ball—a color of golf ball Fred Couples and only Fred Couples can make look cool—rattling off the flagstick and disappearing for his fourth birdie of the day. Even after bogeying the 18th, he finished with a one-under 71, turning back the clock for what felt like the millionth time at Augusta National.

The thing is, it felt like Freddie's days as a serious Augusta National contender had run its course. After making 30 cuts in his first 33 Masters appearances, only missing consecutive times in 2008 and 2009, Couples missed the last four in a row, shooting a combined 34 over in that stretch. His age, plus an already-bad back that was deteriorating with age, were beginning to show in his favorite tournament of the year.

This was especially the case a year ago this week, when Couples said he felt like "a cripple." On Thursday he was looking and feeling as spry as ever, routinely driving it in line with his two younger playing partners, 33-year-old Russell Henley and 40-year-old Alex Noren. Both Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods had commented on how far Couples was hitting it in a practice round earlier this week, and they weren't lying.

"When I get pumped up, I can drive it far enough where it gets [the young guys] all excited because last year I played—I was really almost a cripple, and I was popcorning it," said Couples. "This year I felt pretty good. So I got it within 20 yards of them a few times, which is good."

Hitting it far, once a unique skill back in Couples' day, is now a requirement in order to keep up, particularly at this golf course, which lengthens seemingly every year. Going after it with the driver is not much of an issue for the man they call Boom Boom. The other clubs are another story.

"The 4-iron is hit or miss. I can hit it 200 maybe, and 20 years ago I could hit it probably 215," Couples said. "It's almost the same loft. I have kept my lofts -- now 40 years ago when I first started, they were all tons of loft on them. But now everyone's using stronger clubs.

"I hit a 7-iron 160 yards. Alex Noren hits a 7-iron 190. But he's just so strong and powerful. I just can't get my body there."

Strong as an ox, the Swede is. Yet Couples, bad back and all, clipped him by seven strokes on Thursday, positioning himself to possibly make the weekend at the Masters for the first time since 2018. Even as this tournament continues to do everything in its power to get with the times, what's old is new again at Augusta National.