AUGUSTA, Ga. — After Fred Couples hit his approach to the 18th green Friday, the ball teetered on the top tier for a moment before deciding to slowly trickle back towards the hole, narrowly missing the cup and settling in tap-in range for a birdie. The shot sent patrons in full roar, and left Couples at T-7 after 36 holes, with the only surprising thing about that being, well, nothing.
Couples has resided in the top 10 after 36 holes six times since turning 50 in 2010, and no player of any age has done it more often during that time. That it has happened so often for Couples can’t be passed off as a coincidence or just an early week feel-good story. There’s a reason for it. Experience matters at Augusta National. It matters a lot.
“I remember the first time I made the cut I was playing with Tom Watson, I think I shot 80 or 81,” said Couples, who noted the wind might actually have helped him as it exacerbated the mis-hits of others as he was striking the ball solidly. “He shot 68. I learned a lot about the course that day. I watched him play, and I listened a little bit to him and Ray Floyd on how to play the course. But I honestly don’t know the very first year I thought, 'Wow, I have this course down.' It’s not very easy to figure out.”
Couples, however, seems to have cracked the code as the Masters—played on a course that seemingly is designed to reward power and punish those with diminished strength or skills—continues to be a reinvigorating golf fountain of youth. Friday at Augusta National was no different as Couples, who shot 73 in the opening round, fired a 70, with six birdies against a disappointing double bogey and frustrating bogeys on the 16th and 17th. No wonder he was among the topics trending on Twitter.
Since turning 50 in 2010, Couples has been far from a ceremonial golfer at the year’s first major, finishing sixth, T-15, T-12, T-13 and T-20 before a missed cut in 2015 and a DNP last year when a bad back forced him to miss the tournament for the first time since 1994. Feeling healthier in 2017, the 57-year-old returned to a course that has been often been kind to those who qualify for AARP cards. Among others, Ben Hogan was 54 when he shot a third-round 66 in 1967, a round so memorable it moved Herbert Warren Wind to write about it. Jack Nicklaus made a real run at a seventh green jacket as a 58-year-old in 1998, eventually finishing T-6. And Bernhard Langer was just two shots back of Jordan Spieth a year ago after 54 holes before fading on Sunday.
The success of “mature” players such as Couples is an occurrence almost singularly unique to golf. Those who should be having milk and cookies at bedtime can still, at times, marry their remaining skills with a lifetime of knowledge to produce a result few felt possible. Yes, better fitness and better equipment offer an assist, as does the benefit of playing the PGA Tour Champions, which keeps the game sharp and the competitive juices from stagnating. In fact, Couples arrived at the Masters riding a wave of good play on the senior circuit, with a second, T-6, a win and T-4 in four starts this year.
But that doesn’t begin to explain the shocking frequency with which Couples finds his way into contention at the Masters during his senior years. Championship golf is supposed to be cruel to the nerves, and strokes to par once gained easily should come less often—especially for a player who had to give up the belly style of putting when anchoring was banned last year. But Augusta National, with greens that baffle even the best putters and where ball placement on the greens is critical, is like a game of billiards in which each shot sets up the next. As such, institutional knowledge is needed.
Couples has plenty of that at his disposal. Like when he laid up on the par-5 15th with his second shot, then wedged it beyond the hole with his third, using the backstop to bring the ball back to birdie range. He missed the putt, but the patience so often demanded by Augusta National was on full display. In the following group and tied for the lead, Rickie Fowler—at 28 less than half Couples’ age—went for the green in two, airmailed it, found the water by the 16th hole and made bogey, representing a stark contrast between age and experience, and youthful exuberance.
Still, Couples doesn’t feel like an old man out there. “I feel like my age is still OK, because I can drive it far enough,” he said. “I’m not long like I used to be on this kind of a course, but it still plays where I can reach a lot of these greens with shorter clubs to make the ball stop around the hole.”
Whether Couples has enough energy in reserve to compete over the final 36 holes remains to be seen. In 2012, he shared the 36-hole lead before faltering with rounds of 75-72. A year later after a solid five-under-par at the halfway point he went 77-71.
“I’m a competitor, so I like to believe in myself,” said Couples, who has friends here this week sporting pins that say, “1992” for his Masters win 25 years ago. “I like to think that I’ve had a lot of good finishes here, and my goal is to keep fighting with these guys. I’m not thinking winning this tournament, but I'm thinking continuing to play well and see what happens … if I play well enough maybe I’ll have a shot at it.”
Which, given recent history, wouldn’t be much of a surprise at all.