Posted by: Tom Spencer
Monday, October 1, 2012 at 10:56 AM
“The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.” (Perry Como - 1969)
Bing Crosby once said, “Perry Como invented casual.” Como, the noted singer/entertainer, loved golf and featured golfers on his television show. He was self-effacing and known to discount his legacy.
Fred Couples, who honed his game on the public courses under blue and cloudy skies in Seattle, has exuded those same Como-like traits throughout his Hall of Fame career. A character in the golf world since taking up the game, Couples has always honed his craft in his own unique way.
Due to the cost of buying golf gloves, as a kid he decided would play without one; that hasn’t changed. As an amateur, he captured the Washington State Open wearing tennis shoes – have you noticed a recent trend he helped start in footwear? His swing, while always powerful and fluid, was completely home made. In fact, Couples didn’t take his first formal golf lesson until teachers Paul Marchand and Dick Harmon got a hold of him in the late 1980s.
The slow stride, the twitches and stretches, the nickname (“Boom Boom”), the smile and the on-course attitude…all are unique to Fred. Who didn’t buy Ashworth clothing after seeing Couples wear the comfy threads? Things he’s never totally embraced: driving, books, phone calls and a steadfast commitment to his job (He first used the word “retirement” in his mid-20s).
Yes, 15 career wins with one major (’92 Masters) and two Players Championships may not match the total output of other recent inductees. However, greatness is measured in other ways—some subtle and others much more relevant—if you dig beneath the surface of the numbers.
As a teenager, Couples watched the great Lee Trevino, another self-taught player, put on a clinic. At that moment, he decided to become a professional golfer. Little did he know that four years later, he would be paired with the Merry Mex in the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness CC where Fred emerged as low amateur. At age 52, Couples shared the 36-hole lead in the 2012 Masters—his fifth decade competing in major championships—and captured the Senior British Open at Turnberry. If he stays healthy, retirement is still a ways off.
Couples’ path to the Tour was as unusual as his hands-on-the-shoulder finish to the swing. Coach Dave Williams led the University of Houston’s powerhouse golf program for decades. In the late 70s, Williams recruited Couples via phone, not after hearing about Fred’s superior ball-striking or putting touch, but because of how he could escape from troubling lies—notably in Washington state’s giant trees—as well as any youngster in the country.
Three years later, after Couples lost in the quarter-finals of the 1980 U.S. Amateur, he decided to bypass his senior year of college eligibility and turned pro; a decision that didn’t go over very well back home. He showed up at an event in Long Beach, declared his intention to play for money, and the rest is history.
Within two years he’d captured his first Tour event and in 1984 he ousted Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson to take the Players Championship at age 24. By the time he was 32, Couples was the #1 player in the world, a first-time major champion and the face of American golf. He’s won on Tour in three different decades and since turning 50 has blistered the Champions Tour with eight more victories.
His knack for great shots and low rounds, on demanding venues, has always been a trait. Course records at Riviera (62) and TPC Sawgrass (63) come to mind. As does 63 at Firestone or 64 at Congressional or 69 at Muirfield Village in horrendous weather, the lowest score that day by four shots. Couples back-nine 29 at Southern Hills in ’82 tied a PGA Championship record and his 66 at the 2010 Masters is the lowest score by a senior golfer in Masters history.
His creative shot-making has always been a specialty. Instead of bellying a sand wedge around the greens, Couples would turn his putter sideways and strike the ball with the toe instead. Do you recall the one-armed bunker shot he sank at the ’92 Masters? He’s used that shot his entire career. Fred has eagled the 18th hole at St. Andrews, double eagled a par-5 in the World Cup, aced the 17th hole at Sawgrass and executed the winning shot in the first two Presidents Cups
Maybe his most memorable shot didn’t come in a tournament. While co-hosting a charity event in Houston with college roommates Jim Nantz and Blaine McCallister, Couples asked an unsuspecting Nantz to stand a couple feet in front of him and proceeded to hit a full 5-iron between Jim’s legs! That moment became the inspiration for a television commercial for Lynx irons.
Couples also showed remarkable versatility when it came to statistical performance. At various times he’s finished the year #1 on Tour in scoring (twice), money (once), all-around performance (twice), birdie average (four times), sand saves (once) and even putting. Yes, for four consecutive years (1982-85) the man now wielding a belly putter led in putts per/green in regulation. Oddly enough, his best finishes in driving distance and greens in regulation, his two strengths, were second and third respectively.
Anybody who plays professionally for 30+ years will experience the lows of the game and Couples is no exception. Back problems plagued him in his 20s, nearly derailed his career in his 30s and still persist today. Opportunities to win several more majors (most notably the 1990 PGA and 1998 Masters) slipped through his fingers. His singles loss in the 1989 Ryder Cup to Christy O’Conner, Jr., left him in tears.
Couples bounced back in arguably the most pressure-packed Ryder Cup ever at Kiawah Island to register 3 ½ points and lead the United States to victory. He’s been bouncing back his entire professional life—in his own individual way. Outwardly casual, but complicated underneath. Born with exceptional hand-eye coordination, he created a swing that defies conventional wisdom. His smile can light up a room yet it’s countered by a shyness that at times makes him seem reclusive.
I first saw him in person when I was in high school and took an afternoon off (sorry, mom and dad) to follow him around at a charity tournament in the East Bay. At that time, he was in his mid-20s and probably couldn’t imagine a career that would culminate in St. Augustine, Florida. To get into the Hall of Fame requires competitiveness, perseverance and skill. Fred Couples has those intangibles and a lot more.