AUGUSTA, Ga. – They are the yin and yang of this golf course, its warmest ambassador and its coldest detractor. They are aging optimism and youthful pessimism, victory with a smile and defeat with a scowl. They are Fred Couples and Sergio Garcia, and after the first round of the 2013 Masters, they sit within arm's length of each other atop the leaderboard.
This was one of those Augusta afternoons that's like a day off from school; you don't want to waste it because you don't know when it's coming around again. It's not getting any easier than this, so Thursday was the day to go low.
Fred Couples, hands down the coolest golfer on the course, sidled his way to a 4-under afternoon marred only by two bogeys, including a late one on 18 that kept him two strokes off the lead of Garcia and Marc Leishman, who are tied at 6-under.
At 53, Couples is grayer now, walking a little more gingerly thanks to persistent back pain, but he's still the same suave player that captured the 1992 Masters with a combination of skill and insane luck. His Sunday tee shot that year on 12, which rolled back to within inches of Rae's Creek but somehow hung on the bank, still stands as one of the most fortunate shots in Masters history.
Something about Augusta, then, brings out the best in Couples. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since 2003, but in that time has carded three top-6 finishes and another two top-15s at Augusta. He was tied for the lead after round two last year, and held the solo lead in 2010.
Can Couples hold on for another green jacket two decades after his first? Honestly, it's doubtful; this is a rugged course and it hurts even the ones who love it the most. But it's impossible to deny that this place keeps Couples playing young … and he passes along the feeling to his fans.
Garcia, meanwhile, is a player old before his time. Still only 33, he's been his own worst enemy almost since he arrived on Tour as the first of Tiger Woods' supposed rivals back in 1999. He's borne the "best player without a major" mantle for so long that it might as well bear his name. And the farther he goes in his career, the farther away that goal seems.
Augusta in particular has bedeviled him. The course has given him more cuts than a cheap razor, and in 15 attempts he's only managed two top-10 finishes. He melted down here in 2009, cursing the course conditions in a rant that left many observers thinking he'd spat on the Mona Lisa.
"I don't like it, to tell you the truth," he said at the time. "I don't think it is fair. Even when it's dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It's too much of a guessing game. … They can do whatever they want. It's not my problem. I just come here and play and then go home." (Naturally, he backpedaled in a statement two days later.)
On Thursday, at least, he and the course reached something of a truce. Garcia birdied the first and never looked back, never surrendering a stroke back to par as he finished with six birdies.
"It's obviously not my most favorite place, but we tried to enjoy it as much as we can," Garcia said on Thursday evening. "Sometimes it comes out better than others. Today was one of those good days. We'll enjoy it while it lasts."
If that quote sounds resigned, even flat-out defeatist, it sounded that way as he was speaking it. Thursday, Garcia had to defend himself against the suggestion that he was only marking time until another defeat at Augusta.
"Every time I tee off in a tournament, my goal is to play the best I can and win the tournament," he said. "It doesn't change this week."
Both Garcia and Couples have a long way to go to get within sight of a green jacket, much less win one. Both men have history working against them. But at Augusta, history might, just possibly, work in your favor.
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"The beauty and the bad thing of this game is that it can have such highs and such lows," Garcia said. "The most important thing is to make sure you get through those [lows] nicely."
They won't have long to wait. Garcia tees off at 8:39 a.m. Friday, and Couples follows 11 minutes later. If they're both still in the red by midafternoon, a historic weekend for both men could be in the making.
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