Sammamish, Wash. – He did everything he needed to do to win this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club.
He never shot higher than par-70, and he tied for the lowest single round of the championship with his third-round 5-under 65. He led the field in birdies with 17. He ranked second in putting, 11th in driving accuracy, 13th in greens in regulation. He never suffered a three-putt.
Certainly, that seems like the statistical summary of a winner. Except that Fred Couples didn’t win.
No, that honor went to Bernhard Langer, who obviously played some impressive golf to keep hometown favorite Couples from the winner’s circle. The German did it with a flawless closing 67 for an 8-under-par 272 total and a three-shot victory, his second major title in as many weeks after he captured the Senior British Open in Scotland.
But Couples, 50, who grew up in the Seattle neighborhood of Beacon Hill, had no reason to hang his head. A shocking triple bogey 8 on the par-5 second hole all but scuttled his chances for victory, but the 1992 Masters champion showed real grit and kept the raucous hometown crowd hopeful until the finish by clawing back within two shots before he ran out of holes.
I know I played really, really well this week. Bernhard just played unbelievably, said Couples, who kept his cool and composure throughout the championship amid the pressures of playing at home and the accompanying myriad distractions, including his role as the honorary chairman.
A Champions Tour rookie who won three straight starts earlier this year, Couples appeared headed for a golden afternoon when he birdied the par-4 opening hole to move to six under par, immediately breaking the 54-hole tie with Langer.
But his bid unraveled in a matter of minutes. He smartly opted to lay up on the 508-yard second hole after his drive leaked right into the intermediate rough. His third, with a 60-degree sand wedge from 73 yards, was fat, short and wet, plopping into the pond that guards the front-right portion of the putting surface.
The air all but disappeared from Sahalee, except for the collective groans from a gallery that stood 10-deep. I don’t believe what I just saw, one distraught fan muttered.
It only got worse when Couples flew the green with his fifth shot, flopped his sixth to 10 feet and then missed the putt that would have saved double bogey. Combined with Langer’s simple two-putt birdie, the result was a four-shot swing, and Couples was suddenly three behind.
When I birdied the first hole, that was what I thought I needed to get going. And then about 12 minutes later I was looking for a hole to crawl in, Couples said with a wry grin. Going down the third hole I was asking my caddie [Joe LaCava] if I've ever laid up on a par5. And I did on the second hole and walked away with an 8. 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.
He didn’t miss a shot all day, except for that one, and it was a bad one at a bad time, said LaCava, Couples’ longtime caddie and friend. I mean, he could get it up-and-down from anywhere, and he knows that, so it was a big shock what happened. He played great all week, though. He did everything but win the tournament.
Couples bounced back with a birdie at the third, but Langer matched it with an unlikely 35-foot serpentine effort that signaled he wasn’t going to submit to the partisan crowd or Sahalee’s claustrophobic confines.
Two long birdie putts at the 14th and 16th put Couples in position for a last-ditch effort, but Langer never flinched, completing a remarkable bogey-free run over his last 45 holes.
Couples had to settle for his third runner-up finish of the season and the knowledge that his second professional start in his hometown (after the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee, where he finished joint 13th) was unarguably a success.
A lot of people might have been saying I won by being from here and playing in the tournament. And then it got better and better every day, Couples said.
Couples seems to be getting better with age, even with a chronically bad back that slowed him out of the gate on Thursday. Not only has he been a force in his first season on the Champions Tour, but he finished sixth at this year’s Masters Tournament.
Captain of the most recent U.S. Presidents Cup team, which won last fall at Harding Park in San Francisco, Couples has some observers wondering if he wouldn’t be an aid to this year’s Ryder Cup team with a sixth appearance. Langer, who has played in the Ryder Cup 10 times, wouldn’t disagree, and suggested that U.S. captain Corey Pavin might want to keep an eye on the former PGA Tour Player of the Year.
I think Freddie has a very good chance to be picked for the Ryder Cup, said Langer, the captain of the victorious 2004 European Ryder Cup team. If I was the American captain he would definitely be on my short list, on the list that Corey should consider, because when you look at Freddie, how well he's played the last year or two, his putting has gotten that much better and that was always the part that was questionable here and there. But his putting is very solid. He's certainly one of the best ball strikers in America, no matter who you put him up against. He hits the ball very far, hits it very controlled. He can shape it left to right and right to left, and he's a seasoned competitor. He's not scared of pressure. He's been in all these situations before so I think Freddie would be a definite asset to the American Ryder Cup team.
He was a definite asset to this championship, helping swell the crowds that peaked at 31,444 on Sunday. The sting of that ugly second hole was gone by the time he holed out for his 5-under 275 total. After talking with the media, Couples signed autographs and shared hugs and handshakes with friends and relatives outside the clubhouse.
And there were still throngs hanging around, shouting his name and cheering and clapping for him. A loss is never easy, but he didn’t look like a man who had lost the biggest championshipfor him this side of his 1992 Masters triumph.
It was a great week, Couples said in assessing the big picture. I'm hoping the USGA or PGA Senior maybe the next six or eight years finds Sahalee or somewhere else in the Northwest to come back and play. I don't know if that will ever happen. But it was a lot of fun to be here, I can tell you that much.
The whole week, I'll think about it and come back in three weeks [for the Boeing Championship at nearby TPC Snoqualmie Ridge on the Champions Tour], so that helps, too. It was really amazing. It's the second time I've ever played at home. The first time was great, but this was even better.
All it lacked was the trophy – even though he played well enough to hoist it.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.