Couples in contention again at Augusta

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Fred Couples shot a 4-under 68 on Friday to remain only five shots off the lead heading into the weekend

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Maybe we got Fred Couples all wrong.

The man they call "Boom Boom" has been one of the world's most beloved golfers for a generation for one main reason.

"He makes it look easy," said Davis Love III. "Fans love that."

Couples has always made it look easy, from the way he hits to the way he strolls up the fairways to the way he shrugs off good news and bad. Even his nickname, Freddy, is more suited to a teenager or a rock singer than a man 14 years from senior citizenship.

That's been his blessing and his curse, as Couples has disappointed many fans and pundits by making it look too easy. Some people think he just doesn't try hard enough, or that he coasts on his obscene talent. Only one major? Not nearly enough for someone who can blast the ball at age 51 like a man half his age. Even as the press waited for him to finish his incredible 4-under-par second round on Friday, one writer along the ropeline called him "the most underachieving player of the last 20 years."

But this weekend, with a chance to become the oldest golfer to ever win a major, Couples will enter a new realm of popularity because of just how hard every step and swing will be for him.

Couples' back is in pain. Not just a little pain. "A lot of pain," says his caddie, Joe Lacava. "He won't tell you about it. But he has no gas left."

Lacava said those words Thursday, after the opening round. On Friday, Lacava said Couples hit a 3-wood into the 15th green when he used to hit a 7-iron. Now imagine Saturday. Imagine Sunday. Imagine all the pressure and all the swings in 90-degree heat. Imagine the agony of every swing – heck, every lined-up putt. Couples starts his limited practice sessions these days with a 5-wood because his back is too sore to bend over and swing a wedge.

"Anytime, it could go," Lacava said.

This is not an exaggeration. Asked whether he ever worries if Couples will have to pull out of this tournament, Lacava said, "I wonder that over every shot."

All that makes Friday's second round look much less like the work of a devil-may-care slacker and much more like the triumph of a man who smiles on the outside and strains on the inside.

"He was in such bad shape he couldn't make it through a practice round," says Love, who knows Couples about as well as anyone on the PGA Tour. "It's amazing to watch him hitting balls. This place just seems to energize him."

Funny thing is, Couples explained Thursday why he couldn't contend for this title. "I can slap it around," he said, "but guys are getting birdies in bunches. I'm not strong enough to make shot after shot."

But he was strong enough, somehow, to birdie 2, 4, and 7 on the front Thursday, against no bogeys. Then he birdied 12 and 15 before giving away a shot on 16. Not bad for someone who was born in the 1950s. Not bad for someone which one publication reported was only coming to Augusta this week to "have some fun."

Maybe Couples has a lot less fun than we thought.

It sure won't be fun this weekend. What's deceptive on television is how hilly the course is. The 18th fairway alone is tough to walk on a hot day, let alone on a finishing Sunday after 71 other holes. Couples has a great story so far, but recall that it was Ray Floyd, age 49, who softened from fatigue in the last round here in 1992 to help Couples earn that sole major championship.

So can Freddy win this thing?

"If he wins at 51," said Phil Mickelson, "it'd be a pretty special feat. But with Fred, it's not that surprising with the way he plays this course."

"It's not out of the realm of possibility," said Tom Watson. "Fred knows the course very well. You play a dozen rounds here, and you understand what you have to do."

"Can I pull a Jack?" said Couples himself, once again making things light. "Six years ago, maybe."

But then he continued, and in an instant the aw-shucks was gone:

"Can I win? Of course. This is probably the only tour event I can still win."

Couples then suggested a win Sunday would be "the biggest upset in golf history."

True. But more than that, Couples' image would finally be rewritten. Nobody right now would ever compare Freddy's persona to that of say, Tiger Woods, but a win at Augusta would be right up there with what Woods did at the U.S. Open in 2008 on a shredded knee. After all, which would be tougher? To win in your early 30s on a wrecked knee? Or to win in your early 50s with a wrenched back? Could we ever consider Couples anything less than a warrior if he lands on the leaderboard Sunday?

Those who have watched him from afar can still dismiss Couples for having way more talent than resolve. But the man has clearly downplayed his pain for years, if not decades. While other players might not even show up at Augusta with a bad back, Couples has more than thrown his clubs out onto the course. He's "grinded," to use a worn-out golf term. He's competed. He's contended. And he's done it all nearly two full decades after he won his only major.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is not, "Has Couples lived up to his talent?" but rather, "How much did Couples' pain hold him back?"

That's the question his friends ask.

"It's just a shame," said Love. "He never got to show how good he was. It's unbelievable what he could have done."

And it's unbelievable what he could still do. Couples said Friday. "I would be gone" if he won this tournament.

What a walk-off shot that would be: Just when the world realizes how hard Freddy's really worked – how much he's endured – he evaporates into legend.

That's kind of what Couples deserves, actually.

And, sadly, it's what we deserve, too.