- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Nearly two decades have passed since Fred Couples exploded on the golf world at the 1983 Kemper Open. The charismatic Couples virtually holed his tee shot on Congressional's 16th hole that afternoon, abruptly ending a five-way playoff and effectively heralding his arrival as one of the game's most popular players.
"It was my first win, and it came after a wild, long day," said Couples, recounting the moment yesterday. "I shot 77, and I don't remember exactly, but I think Scott Simpson shot 77 and T.C. Chen shot 76 or 77. We're all in the last group shooting those scores. When is that ever going to happen again? But I got lucky. The course was really tough, I got into a five-way playoff, and I hit one good shot on the par-3."
For most observers, that masterful stroke was overwhelmed moments later by the vision of the late Deborah Couples, clad completely in hot pink, leaping onto her husband and practically bisecting him with her legs in jubilation.
That moment was pure Boom Boom, a star-to-be reveling in the springtime of a brilliant future. Almost 20 years later, autumn has descended upon Couples' career. Domestic bliss now means something far different like five midseason weeks at home with wife Thais and children GiGi and Oliver. And bliss on the golf course no longer demands victories just competence and the occasional top-20 finish.
"I can't just come in here and tell you that I'm going to play great, because I haven't in a long time," said the 14-time Tour winner and 1992 Masters champion, more realistic than wistful about the state of his game. "I still want to play. Really what keeps me going is that in a roundabout way I think it would be great to play well again. Whereas a long time ago, I took it for granted that I was going to play well. I'm just at a different spot. Now, I get excited to finish in the top 20 at a tournament. Whereas before, I was disappointed."
Even given his lowered standards, the last 18 months have been relatively frustrating for the 42-year-old Couples. Last season, he finished out of the top 125 on the money list for the first time in his career. And this season, he has just one top-10 finish (T9 at the Nissan Open) in 11 starts. On the course, the low point might have been last week's opening-round 80 at the Memorial in his first start since the Masters. The emotional nadir probably came earlier this season, when he experienced a complete lack of support from the Tour and his peers on his proposed Majors Tour, an eight-event circuit of truncated tournaments on famous courses for players over 40 with at least one major championship to their credit.
The PGA Tour felt threatened by the proposal, and none of Couples' cohorts between the ropes came to his defense when the media lambasted the concept. Two weeks ago, the Fox network, which had originally signed on to televise the events, abandoned the project.
"It's clearly not going to make it," said Couples of his proposal. "It was just an idea that I had and Nick Faldo had. In my mind, I felt like it would have been a great thing for a lot of players. My idea is not to play golf to make money. If it was I'd play 35 events a year and make a whole hell of a lot more money. My idea was to play golf against guys I've grown up playing. I don't think playing eight times a year against Greg Norman, Faldo, Mark O'Meara, Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros, Paul Azinger, Lee Janzen and guys like that would be a horrible thing.
"That's why this whole thing came about. I thought it would be really fun to see those guys win again. Maybe in 30 years, the PGA Tour will have something like it, and they'll run it. I don't care if the writers run it. I just feel like if I could go beat Greg Norman in a tournament that would be a huge deal for me."
Couples will have the chance to do exactly that this week at TPC at Avenel, as he and Norman headline a Kemper Open field somewhat longer in the tooth than in recent success. Frankly, it's exactly the kind of sparse field that could be conducive to a striking Couples' comeback. The Kemper Open is renowned for producing surprise champions. And though Couples has never played particularly well at Avenel, recording just one top-20 finish in five starts (T16 in 1988), his confidence seems to have rebounded after last week's Memorial debacle.
Couples found his form during a practice round yesterday. And he points to the recent exploits of fellow 40-somethings Nick Price (who won at Colonial) and John Cook (who finished second at Memorial) as reason to believe youth isn't everything.
"Memorial that was a waste of time there. But this week is different," said Couples. "I played pretty well today, and I feel much better about my game. By Friday afternoon I might hate the game. But by next week, I'll be ready to go again. I don't want to slow down. I want to play as much as I can. I've had back problems on and off again since 1993, but I can still go play. My back is not a real issue. The only issue is that I can't go bang balls, and I didn't used to do that. I just played a lot.
"And if you ask me if I still think I can win, well yeah, but it ain't going to happen two or three or four more times. It might take a fluke."
A fluke like posting a 77 on Sunday and still getting into a playoff? A fluke like a ball plugging in the bank on No.12 at Augusta National? A fluke like anonymity suddenly equaling triumph see recent Kemper champions Rich Beem (1999) and Tom Scherrer (2000)? Neither Couples nor the Kemper Open are immune to bizarre twists of fortune. And a last-call Kemper uprising by golf's king of cool might become the most popular fluke on record.


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