Sammamish, Wash. – Not only is Fred Couples returning to his native Seattle for the U.S. Senior Open this week, he’s returning to virtually the exact spot where he told himself 35 years ago that he wanted to be a professional golfer.
The many stories of Couples growing up on Seattle’s Beacon Hill and sneaking through a hole in the fence on the fourth hole to play on the neighborhood public course, Jefferson Park, are legendary. Also legendary are the skills he showed as a youngster and how much fun he was having playing the game.
But it wasn’t until he saw Lee Trevino put on a clinic at Sahalee Country Club in 1975 that he decided on his mission in life.
“I got to stand as close as anyone to him, and I was just amazed how great he hit the ball,” Couples said during one of his many moments reminiscing as honorary chairman of this week’s championship.
“When I saw this guy, I figured that’s absolutely what I want to do. It was kind of a pipedream. I was 16 years old, but that’s the day I really felt like I wanted to be a golfer, watching Lee Trevino hit balls and do a clinic.”
Now it’s Couples who is doing the clinics at Sahalee, and drawing the largest crowds and the most autograph seekers during the practice rounds.
And while other players have more than Couples’ one major (1992 Masters) and 15 PGA Tour victories, no one has done it with such a relaxed backswing and demeanor.
He has always been a fan favorite among women for his boyish charm and good looks, even at age 50, but the guys dig him as well.
“He’s a cool dude, it’s as simple as that,” said Greg Devine of Seattle, who was watching the Wednesday practice round. “He’s just laid-back.”
“I think he watches SportsCenter as much as I do,” said Kurt Pepin. “He just seems like a regular guy.”
Pepin grew up playing junior golf, and is proud of the fact that his first victory came at Couples’ home course of Jefferson Park. And, of course, both Devine and Pepin, beers in hand, just love Couples’ seemingly effortless, and amazingly productive, swing.
“Everybody says the same thing, how easy he makes it look,” Pepin said.
They’ve been saying that around Seattle for 35 years now. He won state and regional junior titles in 1976, and then beat all the professionals in the Washington State Open in 1978.
“The same way, exactly the same way,” is how Rick Adell, a longtime club pro at Inglewood Golf Club in Seattle, describes Couples’ swing then and now.
“I’m pretty much a self-taught player,” Couples said. “My swing hasn’t changed a whole lot, I don’t think.”
Adell was the head pro at Olympia Golf & Country Club in 1975 when Couples played in the Pacific Northwest Golf Association’s Junior Boys Championship.
“He was nothing like anything we had seen,” Adell said. “The PNGA officials and myself, if we could, really tried to get out and watch him because his swing was just as rhythmic and smooth as it is today. And he had a marvelous touch and feel around the greens. And, oh my god, soft hands.”
There were plenty of signs of his legendary relaxed attitude 35 years ago as well. Adell tells the story of how Couples missed his tee time during the first round of match play in that 1975 tournament. When he arrived an hour late, Couples was told his competitor had already completed five holes, and therefore was 5 up. Couples asked for a ride out to the sixth hole, but was told he’d have to walk up the steep first fairway at Olympia and all the way out to the farthest point from the clubhouse. Couples eventually caught his partner, in every sense of the word, and beat him, 3 and 2. Adell said he was late for two other matches before it finally caught up with him and he couldn’t complete his comeback.
But at no time did Couples come across as an obnoxious, irresponsible kid.
“It was the fact that he was so quiet. Fred was very quiet,” Adell said. “He was very kind, very gentle, just a really nice kid. How you would want your own kids to be.”
It’s been said that even the priest who was Couples’ teacher at O’Dea High School could laugh decades later in telling the story of how he scolded young Fred that he would amount to nothing if he didn’t concentrate on his math, only to have Fred reply that all he needed to do was be able to add up the numbers on his scorecard.
It wasn’t said in disrespect, just reality. Couples developed a respect for the game and life at a young age.
“The reason I love it,” Couples said about learning to appreciate the game at Jefferson Park, “is because I could play with 10-year-olds, or 25- or 30-year-olds, or 50-year-olds back when I was 9 or 10.”
Couples first learned the game on the little par-3 course at Jefferson Park, and eventually got a job working on the range so he could hit all the range balls he wanted. Then it was off to the University of Houston to join theCougars, one of the Division I powerhouses at the time under legendary coach Dave Williams, before embarking on a highly successful PGA Tour career.
Now he’s back in Seattle, certainly the star attraction as he plays his first U.S. Senior Open.
“I won three times in a row and things have gone well,” Couples said about his early weeks on the Champions Tour. “Since then, I’ve played fairly well, but I’ve definitely been waiting for these days up in Seattle.”
He returnswith more gray hair than the last time he played Sahalee, the 2002 World Golf Championship-NEC Championship. But he also comes back a little more in shape, thanks in part to his girlfriend of four months, who works out a couple of times a day and drags Couples to the gym when she can.
“I just get on the treadmill while she’s exercising and doing her program,” he said. “I have lost some weight. It’s been very good.”
On Thursday, after his morning round, he plans to take his girlfriend and her mothe toshow them around the areas of Seattle where he grew up. It will certainly rekindle some great memories for Couples, memories that all his boyhood friends have been retelling for years.
Paul Ramsdell is a Seattle-based freelance writer who is contributing articles this week to the U.S. Senior Open website.