PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the expression on Fred Couples' face is a cheery grin or a grimace of pain, but still the Riviera Country Club crowd warms to him just as much as ever.
Returning to the Northern Trust Open for the 26th time, following a break enforced by physical problems last year, Couples remained in decent shape at 1-under and in a tie for 29th place after Saturday.
But the biggest challenge for the 48-year-old is not in posting low scores and surging up the leaderboard. It is about survival.
Couples displayed his trademark friendly disposition as he joked and had fun with playing partners Steve Marino and Ryuji Imada during his third round. However, he also was constantly accompanied by an unseen, yet far less friendly companion – the threat of pain.
The agonies that have tortured both his back muscles and his career for the past decade lurk as a permanent antidote to inflated expectations. Taking one shot at a time is the most hackneyed of clichés in golf, but Couples simply has no other option.
The consuming bursts of physical torture can strike at any time, and without mercy. The cruelty of the affliction, which struck first during Couples' prime and has stuck around, requires a philosophical approach.
"When it comes it is sharp pain, where the initial reaction is like you got shot by a bullet," Couples said in the Riviera clubhouse minutes after Saturday's round. "Then it is back spasms and it locks up, and you don't do much for a few days.
"Nowadays I don't think I am going to beat too many people too many times, but I can still play. If I have a good year and get a little healthier, I can maybe pop up there a handful of times."
After 28 years as a pro, 15 PGA Tour wins and more than $19 million in prize money, why would he bother to carry on with such a situation?
At this tournament, the answer is clear. Couples is as popular here as anyone, having won the event in 1990 and 1992 and become part of the furniture over more than two decades.
He always is guaranteed a tremendous reception and still will enjoy a strong following on Sunday, despite being 10 shots adrift of leader Phil Mickelson.
"It is a great tournament and a great crowd," he said. "It's my 26th out of 28 years, and it is fun – the course is looking as good as ever. If only I had played better today, I would have more to shoot for tomorrow."
Couples essentially took 2007 off, playing only the Masters, where his continued his remarkable record of making the cut each of the 23 times he has competed, and the FBR Open, where he failed to make the weekend.
This year he will play a reduced schedule, without any preconceptions. Just taking it as it comes.
"It is physically tough for me to grind and grind and grind, but it is nice for me to play," he said.
You get the sense that even Couples himself does not have a complete grasp on what keeps him going.
"I'm just doing what I do," he said. "And this is what I do."