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Masters 2024: You won't believe what Fred Couples has been doing to make sure he's healthy enough to play at Augusta

April 09, 2024
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Photo by Ben Walton/Golf Digest

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred Couples refuses to go away. The Masters just means too much to him. And the lengths the 1992 champion will go to for another few tours of Augusta National Golf Club, the outright stubbornness, deserves respect.

One of the most popular players in the annals of the Masters, Couples is preparing to make his 39th start, though “preparing” is a term loosely applied to the 64-year-old Hall of Famer. When he played 18 holes on Sunday with two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal and two friends, it marked the first time he had touched a club since March 21 when he withdrew after the pro-am at the Galleri Classic in Rancho Mirage, Calif. On Tuesday, he played the front nine with Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas in what has become a traditional outing for the trio.

On Wednesday, he might play in the Par-3 Contest. Or he might not. He might hit balls. Or not. He won’t jeopardize his ability to step on the first tee at 11:54 a.m. Thursday, going so far as to eschew hitting anything more than the four woods he now carries in his bag. No sense bending over, even a little, until he absolutely must.

The most important shots he’s taken the last month were “several” cortisone shots in his back, an attempt to ameliorate a new injury in a decades-long battle with back problems. He brought along Dr. Chad Beauchamp, a noted physical therapist from California, to provide extra assistance to keep loose a portion of his right back that has been nagging him for more than three years.

His lower back, which first blew up in 1994 in Miami, is relatively fine. This new injury is more perplexing, the result of a mishap in the final round of the 2020 Sanford International in Sioux Falls, S.D., that was equally injurious to his pride.

“The first hole is a 4-iron off the tee, and I turned to shake hands with [fellow competitor] Willie Wood because I haven't played with him since college, and I turned and kind of got a little further [leaning forward], and [the tee] built like that [steep on the sides], and I just slipped and went right down and bounced right back up,” Couples said, chuckling slightly at the memory of the ignominious mishap. “Seventy-six shots later, on a course that everyone shoots 67 on, I was done.

“It's just been there forever,” he added. “I don't really understand it. I'm going to get an MRI when I get home next week. I don't like doing those things, but just so they can see if it's a new spot because certainly my [lower] back feels really, really good.”

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Fred Couples and Tiger Woods walk together during their Tuesday practice round ahead of the 2024 Masters. (Photo by Ben Walton/Golf Digest)

There have been plenty of older Masters champions who have perhaps hung around too long in terms of taking advantage of a lifetime exemption into the event. Couples, even at less than full strength, has been able to handle the continually lengthened Augusta National exam. He has made 31 cuts, second all-time behind Jack Nicklaus’ 37, breaking a tie with Gary Player after completing 72 holes last year. Last year, Couples struggled to a pair of closing 76s that left him T-50, but he still became the oldest player in tournament history to advance to the weekend.

He and Player also own a share of the record, at least for a few more days, for most consecutive cuts made at 23. They are tied with Woods, who has a chance to break the mark this week.

Couples competed three times on the senior tour early in the season, but then shut it down completely to ensure he could give it a go this week in the 88th Masters. His reasoning was simple and direct. “Because I wanted to play,” he said.

2024 Masters

Fred Couples is trying to make his 39th Masters start, having made the cut in 31 previous appearance. (Ben Walton/Golf Digest)

He fully accepts the physical limitations ahead of him. He has to play around the injury and hope he doesn’t aggravate it. And to make another cut, he has to putt well. “I better putt well,” he said.

“You know what, if I drive it somewhere and I've got downhill lies … the hardest shots I have are like with wedges and sand wedges, so I open way up and I hit a wedge 90 yards now. So the [pain] threshold is when it pops,” Couples said. “Then I don't know what's going to happen. But if I can play around it and get it around, I'll be fine. I could go to the range now and look pretty good hitting drivers and 3-woods because I'm so far away, and I won't even warm up with an iron. It's really not painful until I make a bad swing, and then it's toast.

“The last thing I want to do is come out and embarrass myself by a bad score,” he added. “I know I can hit the ball. What is that? I don't know if that's a 73 or a 75, but I'm not shooting 80. There's no way. I'm just not that kind of person. I wouldn't do that. Can I shoot 80? Of course I can. But I'm not planning on it.”

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