The career finish line for Fred Couples is a moving target, and where it is at any one moment depends on the degree of difficulty he encounters getting out of bed in the morning.
Only last June, Couples was sounding the death knell for his career. “I think my time’s running out,” he said, recalling the back issues that have plagued him since he was 32.
“I do want to play 12, 14 events this year,” he said at the PGA Tour Champions’ Oasis Championship last week. “That’s my goal. There’s no rhyme or reason, but I do really feel pretty good at the moment and I’m planning on playing a little more this year.”
Toward that end, Couples this week will play in one of his two favorite tournaments, the Genesis Open, in all likelihood for the last time. He hinted as such last week, when he said he would “play Riviera one more time.” The PGA Tour event, which he has won twice in 34 career starts but hasn’t played since 2016, will mark the second week in a row he has played and his third start already in 2019, a year in which he will turn 60, in October.
“It’s the ebb and flow of how he feels,” his college teammate, coach and friend Paul Marchand said. “He’s a feel player and a feel guy. The back episodes, when they occur, depend on when you catch him. It’s pretty finicky. It feels good sometimes and other times it feels like it’s never going to get better.”
Couples looked to be more his old self than old in his two PGA Tour Champions starts, tying for fifth in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship and tying for eighth at the Oasis.
“Watch the way that he moves and how he gets the ball out of the hole and how he tees it up,” Marchand said. “You can tell after having seen him play all these years when he’s standing there. He’s such a languid, flowing, moving guy, almost to the extreme, so when he has some tightness going on with his back or neck he doesn’t quite move the same.
“But I thought he looked great. I like the way he was moving. We’ll know more about it watching him tomorrow. This time of year, in the back of his mind, he’s trying to play at Augusta. That has a special place in his heart and he plans to play every year.”
His goal of playing 14 tournaments is an ambitious one. The last time he played 14 was in 2014 (11 senior events and three on the PGA Tour). He played nine last year, 13 in 2017 and four in 2016.
“The process is just trying to figure it out,” Couples said. “I've been doing this a long time. I could play great today and get in the car and drive to the hotel and get out wrong and something could go wrong with my back. Or I can hit a driver as hard as I can and something could happen there.”
Couples hadn’t made the cut in a non-major PGA Tour event since 2013 until last October at the Safeway Open, when he shot a second-round 65 to advance to the weekend (he’d finish T-41). It was the 500th made cut in a PGA Tour event for Couples (492 officially by the tour's count and plus eight made cuts at the Open Championship prior to 1995, when the tour officially started counting the event.)
Conventional wisdom suggests that Couples ought to sit this one out with cool, wet weather forecast for Riviera, and wait for warmer weather.
“He’s funny that way,” Marchand said. “I was with him when he really had an episode in 1994, at Doral, and I just remember he was in the next to last group on Sunday, he hit about 20 balls, and his back seized up on him. He pretty much took the rest of the year off. That happened when it was really hot.
“But he grew up in cool weather in Seattle. He always seemed to play well in cool, windy weather. So a lot of things about Freddie are just kind of his own way of doing things that end up being the opposite of what you’d think. Most of the time you’d say, wouldn’t it be better in hot weather than cold? I’m not sure that applies to Freddie.”