Fred Couples isn’t quite a legend in his spare time, as Chi Chi Rodriguez once referred to Jack Nicklaus, but he does a fair impression of a championship golfer when the occasion calls for it.
The 1992 Masters champion, whose promise has been blunted by chronic back problems, Couples is at a point in his career where he seldom has the desire or ability to beat balls. The best he can do from time to time is make refinements to a swing that is still long, languid and powerful.
Even with his sore back prohibiting him from hitting certain shots Saturday at Indianwood Golf & Country Club, Couples powered his way back into contention in the 33rd U.S. Senior Open with an electric 5-under-par 65. He trails Bernhard Langer by five strokes heading into Sunday’s final round, but Couples isn’t fretting about the deficit when he considers the disadvantage he starts with at every tournament he enters.
"I don't practice any at all. I try and play, and when I get stretches where I can play maybe two or three weeks in a row, I can pick up the pace a little bit," said Couples, 52. "I think for a lot of people, if they're healthy, they can go out and work on their games. To get better, you have to do something, but there’s not a lot I can do."
Couples didn’t hit a ball for nine days leading up to the championship after hurting his back and limping through the final two rounds of his previous start in the Constellation Senior Players Championship.
Rounds of 72-68 were hardly a foreshadowing for his performance Saturday, highlighted by a two-hole stretch of perhaps the most entertaining golf of the championship.
After flinching on a wedge that led to a bogey on the par-4 eighth hole, Couples stood one under when he reached the ninth, a dogleg right par-4 measuring 347 yards. Still able to pummel his driver, Couples unleashed a high fade that he pushed slightly. He immediately turned to his caddie, Cayce Kerr, and asked for another ball, having believed he’d belted it out of bounds.
Instead, the ball landed on the green, and he had himself a 25-foot eagle putt.
"Peter Jacobsen was agog when he saw where the ball settled. No one else out here has that in his bag," said Jacobsen, the 2004 U.S. Senior Open champion.
Couples two-putted for birdie, but he got his eagle on the next hole, the par-4 10th. With a wedge from 105 yards, he hit past the flagstick but watched as the ball spun back and curled into the cup. He added another birdie at the 16th with a wedge setting up a 20-footer.
"It was a good shot, but that's not how I was really trying to play it," Couples conceded, referring to his eagle at 10. "It caught the slope and funneled right down to the hole."
That bit of fortune offset some missed opportunities, like his three-putt for par at the 15th. And the bogey at the eighth, which came after a shot that had Couples doubled over, then reaching for Advil from his golf bag.
"When the ball's below my feet, I'm pretty much hoping to hit it solid and not hurt myself. That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is," he said.
Couples competed in 11 events leading up to the U.S. Senior Open, winning once on the Champions Tour and having a chance in one of his four PGA Tour starts. That came at the Masters, where he held a share of the 54-hole lead before dropping to a tie for 12th.
There is a clear dichotomy to his approach to golf. It’s all about degrees of discomfort. The Senior Players was a classic example of what Couples encounters on a day-by-day basis. He opened with 66-63 at Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh to lead, then faded to fourth with 70-71 on the weekend.
When you watch him blast a drive, like the 384-yard poke Friday on the par-5 15th at Indianwood’s Old Course, you wonder how he could ever lose. But with no real ability to prepare, you then find yourself wondering how he contends with so much rust to shake off.
"When my back really feels good, I can try and overpower the course and hit a lot of shots that I'm capable of hitting," he said. "When I don't feel that good, I try to feel my way around the course. Some guys fundamentally are a little more solid or a little more into it. I have a couple of mechanical things that I work on, but I play all by feel."
He felt just good enough Saturday at Indianwood to put up the second-best round of the day behind Langer’s 64.
"I did all right. I hit the ball solid and got myself semi back into it," he said blithely.
Couples did more than all right. It takes a special talent to roll off the couch and have a chance to win a national championship.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.