- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the beauties of Augusta National is that it’s a golf course for all ages. Tiger Woods can win the Masters at 21, and Jack Nicklaus can win it at 46 (and tie for sixth at a grand old 58). The club’s continued attempts to toughen the layout would seem to work against the Geezer Brigade, and yet almost every year one of them pops up on the leader board for a few days, sometimes even longer.

Two years ago, it was 46-year-old Bernard Langer finishing tied for fourth and 47-year-old Nick Price T-6. The year before that, it was 46-year-old Mark O’Meara tying for eighth. The year before that, it was 44-year-old Nick Faldo shooting a nostalgic 67 in the second round before gently fading into a tie for 14th.

Tom Watson was fourth here at 47. Ray Floyd was runner-up at 47 and 49. You don’t see that in the U.S. Open. You don’t see that hardly anywhere.

And this year, despite the latest machinations of the Augusta’s overseers, the Old Guys are making as big an impact as ever. In the group in second place, at 3 under, is 46-year-old Fred Couples; elsewhere in the top 10 are 46-year-old Olin Browne and — do you believe in miracles? — 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw, who has made only one cut in the Masters since winning his second green jacket in 1995.

Heck, even Charles Coody, the ‘71 champion, caused a stir yesterday, flirting with a sub-par round for 15 holes. That’s right, Charlie Coody, whose next birthday will be his 69th. What is this, the Masters or a remake of “Cocoon”?

Of all the old-timers, Couples is to be taken the most seriously — and not just because he’s the same age Nicklaus was when he won for the sixth and last time in ‘86. Freddy has always played well at Augusta. Indeed, he’s never missed a cut; he’s 22-for-22. He also was the champ in ‘92, the near-champ in ‘98 (Mark O’Meara broke his heart on the 72nd hole) and finished T-6 as recently as two years ago. Bet on Boom Boom to still be around tomorrow.

In fact, he might have had a share of the 36-hole lead if he hadn’t made such a splash on the par-5 15th yesterday. He was 4 under at that point, two behind Chad Campbell, and was debating whether to hit a 4- or 5-iron into the green. He opted for the 5-iron; his ball opted to go in the creek. Bogey … on a birdie hole.

“I actually smoked it going right at the flag,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a shot that would hit up on the green and stay on the back, and it just came up short. That was a huge, huge — not a mistake, just a letdown because I hit such a good shot and just misclubbed.”

Another bogey followed, but Couples got one of the strokes back with a kick-in birdie at 17. On 18, he nearly got the second stroke back. Alas, his 7-footer for bird lipped out.

Still, this looks like One of Those Weeks for Freddy. As he put it, “I don’t play great golf a lot [anymore] and put myself in positions like this. I do it every now and then. At the British Open last year I finished third, so I know I can do it.”

Freddy, it’s clear, still has the length to contend at Augusta. Not only could he go for the 15th green on his second shot, “I had 9-irons and wedges to a lot of holes,” he said. As for Crenshaw, who’s at 1 under with Browne, “What he did was miraculous. He doesn’t hit the ball a long way. I’m sure he’s going into these greens with long clubs. They are rock hard.”

Yes, Gentle Ben really is living a fantasy. After all, the man hasn’t even been that impressive on the Champions Tour. But you accumulate quite a database of local knowledge playing Augusta for 35 years. Couples figures he can “save a shot or two” every round because he’s so familiar with the course, even with all the changes.

Crenshaw is also one of the all-time great putters; that always comes in handy at Augusta, with its sneaky putting surfaces. And there’s no denying he’s had a certain amount of good fortune this week — like at 13 yesterday.

“That was a colossal break,” he said. For his second shot into the green on the par-5 hole, he was “in between a 4-wood and a utility wood, and I hit behind it and came up short,” he said. “Lucky to get a five there, really.”

So it went on Day 2 at the Masters. Twenty years after Jack Nicklaus’ famous Last Charge at Augusta, golden oldies Fred Couples and Ben Crenshaw were playing their way onto the leader board — and giving the galleries a few more thrills.

“I’m just elated I made the cut,” Ben said.

He’s not the only one.



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