Fred Couples is Coming Home

By: Blaine Newnham

While cooling off slightly as summer arrived, Fred Couples is still far and away the best player on the Champions Tour. The Seattle native has the most wins, most money and most Charles Schwab Cup points.

Not to mention the longest drives and most adorable style.

But will the home-field advantage be more a disadvantage when Couples goes after his first major 50-plus title at next week's U.S. Senior Open at Seattle's suburban Sahalee Country Club?

At any golf tournament - regular PGA Tour or Champions - Couples is a star attraction, his relaxed demeanor and syrupy swing the envy of men and women, kids and geriatrics. Only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson draw bigger crowds.

Beyond his appeal is his aptitude. He tied for sixth at this year's Masters, showing he can still play with those half his age. His length is regular-tour strength. At times, he has overpowered the Champions Tour.

"It is where I belong," he said this spring after winning three of his first four tournaments. "I mean it is fun. I birdie both the par-5s, and then need only one more birdie to turn in 33."

Couples wasn't kidding. Or boasting. He was 44-under par for the first 45 par-5 holes he played on the Champions Tour.

But now comes Sahalee with only two par 5s, a course where accuracy is more important than length. In the 2002 NEC World Championship at Sahalee, Fred Funk finished tied for second behind Craig Parry and ahead of Tiger Woods. Funk, like Parry, hit it straight if not far.

Sahalee will play at slightly over 6,800 yards, longer than most senior tour events, but not as long as it did for the 1998 PGA Championship when Couples tied for 14th.

Perhaps it is possible that he will make par on the two holes that are normally par-5s but will play as par-4s for the Senior Open (Nos. 6 and 18) and the competition will end up making bogey. Maybe Couples will feel so at home within the tall timber at Sahalee that he'll overwhelm the course with his accuracy and his power.

But the competition will be stiff. And the trees tall.

Loren Roberts is in full stride, Tom Watson can still play, Tom Lehman and Mark Calcavecchia are new presences on the tour. And Funk is Funk.

It was Lehman, in fact, who beat Couples in a playoff for the PGA Senior Championship.

Couples grew up, of course, in the Northwest playing on a tight muni, Jefferson Park, that is a bus ride from downtown; in fact, the bus stops in front of the clubhouse.

"You are as a golfer where you came from," said Couples. "Jefferson Park had tight fairways and small greens. My iron play has always been the strongest part of my game and I realize it is good because of the golf I had to play."

Couples has enjoyed the Champions Tour because there is less pressure on him. All that could change at Sahalee.

"On the regular tour there is pressure not to make mistakes," said Couples in April. "I know I can't keep this up forever, no one can.

"But for me," he continued, "three rounds in a tournament is perfect. There were times on the regular tour when come Sunday my back would be killing me and it was really hard to bend over and putt."

Couples will have to play four rounds at Sahalee. This isn't your friendly Champions Tour stop. It is a USGA championship.

Since leaving for college at Houston in the late '70s, Couples has not lived in the Northwest. But he remains close from afar, cheering for the Seattle sports teams, ever crediting his early golf here for his success, hosting his own two-day tournament in 1990s and bringing to Seattle some of his Tour friends while raising money for local cancer institutes, and willing to help with local promotion and charity (he gave $20,000 to First Tee at Jefferson Park).

Couples grandparents immigrated to Seattle from Italy and changed the family name from Coppola to Couples. His father, Tom, worked for the city's park department and the family lived on Beacon Hill, near Jefferson Park.

Can it be 31 years since Couples won the Washington Open at Glendale Country Club as an 18-year-old amateur, playing the final round in his tennis shoes? In so many ways, all that has changed are the shoes, different and bodacious as ever.

"I think I shot 65 the final round," said Couples of the state open at Glendale, "but that was a long time ago."

"All I remember," said boyhood friend and competitor, John Bracken, "is that he had a Tommy Armour 3-wood and drove it 280 yards - 30 yards past his opponents."

For Couples, it all began at the driving range at Jefferson Park, where he was casually employed. He'd whack them out there and whack them back. He'd flop shots away from the netting before there was such a shot.

"It was boring to hit one 7-iron after another," he said. "So I tried everything. Maybe my game got a little handsy, but I was confident I could hit almost any shot at any time. It was fun."

Couples went to the belly putter in 2003. If nothing else, it allows him to practice more because he doesn't have to bend over as much and put stress on his back.

And then he is hitting a draw off the tee, swinging easier and hitting the ball farther. "All my life," he said, "I've looked left off the tee (where he expected to hit the ball before it moved right with a slight fade). Now I'm looking right. It's strange, but I actually don't have to swing as hard as I did hitting a cut."

Couples has entered nine Champions Tour events and finished in the top 10 seven times. To get ready for Sahalee, he skipped this week's British Senior Open at Carnoustie.

There will be plenty of distractions and expectations next week for Couples. He will be the favorite and the favored. "To have my first Senior Open at Sahalee will be a great, great week," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can be ready to play. Seattle is special for me. It's where I'm from and where I learned the game."

And where he'll get a chance to show what he's got.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.