AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred Couples cut under two sets of ropes, shortcutting the roundabout route from the 10th green to the uphill 11th tee. As he strode through the pine straw, startling a couple patrons who didn't expect a golfer on their turf, Couples gnawed at a white golf tee. And he looked cooler doing that than you or I ever will doing anything.
It's Thursday at the Masters, and that means once again that Fred Couples has forced his way to the top of the leaderboard. His 71 this year follows, in reverse order, a 68, 72, 71, and 66 over the past five Masters. He's entered the weekend in the top 10 in each of the last four years, highlit by a first-place standing in 2012. Over that span, he's finished alone in sixth, T15, T12, and T13, totaling under par in every instance.
"The last few years have been very good, and I really played well today," Couples said in a brief interview after his round. "It's hard for me personally to play a course this hard day after day after day after day for four solid rounds ... It's nice to see Adam [Scott] and Rory [McIlroy], because if they play well, I can't beat them, but if I play well, I can compete with them. And maybe with nine holes to go, I hit four unbelievable shots and do something good."
Regardless of how he finishes this year, the 54-year-old also remains the coolest cat in the game, and there's not even a close second. The women that want to be with him and the men who want to be him are late in middle age now, on the far side of the half-century mark, but he still inspires "FREDDIE" shouts wherever he goes.
So why the heck can't he win this tournament again, striking a blow in favor of graying studs everywhere? "Well, because the last couple years I shot 77 and 75 on Saturday," Couples smiled wistfully. "That's why I can't win it. So I have to play better on all the rounds."
Like Tiger Woods, Couples has suffered from back injuries throughout his career, dating back to 1994. He answered a question about his health with a quick "I feel great!" before heading off to whatever mysterious wonderland it is that Masters champions go to when they're done with their day's play.
But he didn't leave without a touch of regret. On 18, Couples had a chance to take the clubhouse lead, but just missed a moderate birdie putt. He fist-bumped with his caddy, then looked off into the distance, in the direction of Amen Corner, and opened his hands wide as if to ask, "Why?"
And then he strode off the green, confident in the knowledge that he's a good bet to hang around for the weekend once again. Life remains very, very good for Fred Couples.