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Vince Johnson: Old timer is people’s champ

Posted: April 6, 2012 10:14 p.m.
Updated: April 6, 2012 10:14 p.m.

Fred Couples celebrates after finishing the second round the Masters golf tournament on the 18th hole Friday in Augusta, Ga.

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Freddie’s at it again.

On the 20th anniversary of his only Masters’ title in 1992, 52-year-old Fred Couples sits in a tie atop the Augusta National leaderboard after firing a 5-under 67 Friday. He’s tied with Jason Dufner at 5-under, and Rory McIlroy is among five others sitting one stroke behind.

“It’s a little shocking,” Couples said after his round, “but I played really good golf (Friday).”

Known only on the Masters course as “Freddie,” Couples is one of, if not the, most popular players on the grounds of Augusta National. After saving par with an up-and-down recovery on the 18th green, “Freddie” received a standing ovation usually reserved for Sunday. Pumping his dual fists high into the cooler-than-usual Augusta air, the gallery cheered with appreciation and awe.

“I’ve said it for 28 years. This is my favorite golf tournament in the world,” Couples said.

If you believe Couples is just paying this legendary course lip service, think again. After missing the cut for the first time in his career in 2008, Couples walked the course the following day — as a member of the gallery — following Tiger Woods.

Couples is no stranger to success at Augusta National. He’s finished in the top-10 on 10 separate occasions, made 26 of 28 cuts, and in the last two years, he’s finished in sixth and a tie for 15th place, respectively.

“I think the more times you come back here, the more comfortable you feel on it,” the 22-year-old McIlroy said Friday.

“Freddie has a lot of experience here, and he still has the game to do well. It’s great to see him up there, and it just adds a little more spice to the weekend.”

To give some perspective, McIlroy had never picked up a golf club when Couples won his green jacket in 1992, and he’s one of 20 players in this year’s field who were not born when Couples played in his first Masters in 1983.

“He’s just cool,” McIlroy said. “I hope I’m that cool when I’m 52.”

Gray hair flowing from beneath his white cap, Couples strolls around Augusta National at a leisurely pace. The only sign of discomfort comes from a chronic back injury, for which he stretches, twists, and turns at every opportunity. Bending over to read a putt seems like a chore, and walking the undulating hills appears ever-taxing.

“At 52-years-old, I’m getting up there. I sit out there and say ‘what the (heck)’ a lot. What do I have to lose here?”

Couples said. “I’m not going to let too many things bother me. It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday.”

Couples and Dufner sit atop a crowded leaderboard entering Saturday’s play. Thirty players are within five strokes of the lead, including McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, and Bubba Watson, who are all one-stroke back.

If Couples adds another jacket to his closet Sunday, he’ll become the oldest major champion in golf history. He’s six years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest Masters winner in 1986.

“I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well. I’ve had a lot of success here,” Couples said. “Yes, I believe I can win.” 

Vince Johnson is in his fourth year covering The Masters for Morris Multimedia. He is The Signal’s chief multimedia officer and will be writing a daily column from Augusta National Golf Club. You can follow his week on Twitter @vincejohnson.

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