Couples was one shot away - but it was a big one

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- Fred Couples had every reason to expect good things in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open. He would have the crowd behind him and he did; from the first tee to the last green, the throng at Sahalee Country Club acted more like the fanatics you'd find over at Qwest Field, screaming for the Seahawks. Between "BOOM BOOM!", "GET IN THE HOLE!!", and "WE LOVE YOU FREDDIEEEEE!!!", there was no doubt who the gallery wanted to win this tournament.

And Couples had every chance - he shot par through back problems on Thursday and Friday, loosened up to shoot a dynamite 65 on Saturday, and looked to be in great form on the range this morning. While Bernhard Langer, who went into Sunday tied with Couples for the lead, worked quietly and relentlessly on his shots at the practice tee, Couples joked with friends in-between excellent shots.

In the end, it was Langer's relentlessness - and one terribly ill-advised shot by Couples - that made the difference. While Langer shot a three-under 67, making him the only player to dip below par on all four rounds, Couples made par again. The three-shot difference came at the second hole, a 508-yard Par-5. Couples hit a nice driver to the right rough, and smartly laid up before the right-side water hazard that took two-thirds of the front of the green. And then ... Couples tried to lay up again with his short approach, and the wheels feel off. From about 30 yards out from the water and 70 from the front of the green, Couples inexplicably gave it a half-shot, putting the ball in the drink. After his drop, Couples overshot the pin and two-putted for triple bogey. Langer laid up in the face that same hazard on Saturday after hitting the water on Friday, but banged it over today for a birdie and what was then a three-shot lead. This, of course, negated the birdie Couples made on the first hole.

"Going down the third hole, I was asking my caddy if I've ever laid up on a Par-5. And I did on the second hole and walked away with an 8. It had nothing to do with the play I made. I'm kind of shocked that where [Langer] drove the ball he was going to have a mid iron in there. And I was in the first cut of rough, and I didn't know if I could control that so I chose to lay up.

"And I laid up a perfect 69 yards or maybe a little too close. But the ground was hard and I just totally chunked it. And then it became a comedy of errors, and I went back 10 yards and thought I had 90 yards, and my mind wasn't quite right. And then I hit that over the green and then made an 8. And then I played pretty well from there. It was just one of those things. If I could walk out there tomorrow, I would go for the green, no matter where I hit it. I think I would beat 8, that's for sure."

The real problem was in trying to catch up to Langer -- all through the tournament, Langer refused to give ground and just kept scoring. "I just was looking for a spot to pick up a stroke somewhere ... but you're not going to you're not really going to turn momentum around," Couples said of his Sunday opponent.

"I never had the tee. He was up first all day. He hit it down the middle of every fairway. As I told him, he played eight great rounds to play the British Seniors and this without really a poor round of golf, which is tough to do. You take away the 8 I made, I actually played a really, really good round of golf, because I drove it good. I didn't hit many unbelievable irons, but I didn't see many people hitting irons four or five feet from the hole, either. I felt comfortable making pars."

Couples banged his driver on the ground at the third hole and looked sour through the next few holes; he seemed to know that opportunities lost would not be returning against such a formidable challenger. But soon after the loss, he got his head around the big picture and focused on the love and support he had enjoyed from the fans in his hometown. Coming back soon for the Boeing Classic later this month will reinforce the feeling.

"The whole week, I'll think about it and come back in three weeks, so that helps, too," he said. "It was really amazing. I came out Tuesday and there were 12 or 15,000 people out. Wednesday was the same. And then the tournament was full of people. So I think, like I said, it's the second time I've ever played at home. The first time was great, but this was even better.

"Also getting paired with Tom Watson [on Thursday through Saturday]. I've said that 20 times, but he's my guy. I love the guy to death, and to play the first three rounds with him ... it was a great week for me to be here and playing and then to have him playing with me."

Fred Couples may not have given Seattle a dream win, but he was the local hero who deserved every cheer he heard through the week. Walking away with a second-place purse of $280,000 and the love of the entire Pacific Northwest isn't a bad result for a week of golf. It's just that Couples was so close to that much more.

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