PONTE VEDRA, FLA. — PONTE VEDRA, Fla. -- Fred Couples was in the interview room answering yet another painful question, when a booming voice from the rear ended the 30-minute session.
"You only beat me by 18 shots last week," Mark O'Meara yelled, bowing as if addressing royalty. "How many strokes will you give me this week?"
Couples was elated. Not to see O'Meara, but because the inquiries from reporters would stop. His face gleamed. "Oh, good," Couples said.
And with that, golf's reluctant superstar put down the microphone and bolted from his chair. He would go off, ostensibly, to find what he likes best besides birdies: privacy.
"I don't like people knowing everything I do," he said. "I like to stay away from the spotlight. I don't like to go places where I get recognized. I like to stay home and relax."
Home to Couples is the Palm Beach (Fla.) Polo Club. Home also is the top of a leader board. He is on one of those rare hot streaks in a game that has been searching for a superstar since Tom Watson's short game eroded a decade ago.
"It's hard to explain," Couples said. "The game seems easy now. . . ."
He entered The Players Championship having finished first, second, second and first in the past four weeks, earning $602,000. He won the Nestle Invitational last Sunday by nine strokes. He has finished in the top six in 19 of his past 23 events, including five victories, and also was a leading contributor in the United States' victory over Europe in the Ryder Cup.
This week he moved from fifth to first in the Sony World Rankings, becoming the first No. 1-ranked American since the ratings began six years ago. Not that he welcomes it.
"It's embarrassing to me," said Couples, who had only four victories in his 10 1/2 years on tour before his streak began with a tie for third at the U.S. Open last June. "The players are coming up to me, kidding me. . . . I'm not comfortable at all with the No. 1 ranking. I don't think I should be No. 1. . . . I'm a mile from being a dominant player. To be No. 1, you have to look at people who've won big tournaments. I think I'm very close, but I don't believe anybody is far above the rest."
Couples hasn't won a major championship but has won $2.36 million during those 23 tournaments, an average of $102,738 per event.
"I've just hit some good shots and got momentum going," said Couples, 32. "I'm putting well. I used to stand up to putts 10 different ways in a round. . . . The last eight months I'm more square and have a wider stance. . . . I still hit bad shots, but my short game is saving me, and I don't get down on myself as quick as I used to."
Tom Kite was the last tour player to have such a streak of high finishes, placing in the top 10 in 21 of 26 tournaments in 1981. Kite won once that year and finished in the top six in 13 other events. Before that, Watson was dominant, winning four times in five times in '78 and '79 and six times in 1980.
A week's visit last summer to Watson's home in Kansas City, Mo., preceded Couples' streak. Couples hadn't played well and took a month off before playing, practicing, watching several Royals games and relaxing with Watson.
"I learned a couple things -- about the short game, about gripping the club tighter under pressure. The next thing you know I had this streak."
Don't look for it to end this week. Couples set the course record of 8-under-par 64 at the TPC at Sawgrass in winning in 1984.
Couples is the tour's leading money winner and is dominant in other PGA Tour statistical categories: first in all-around, scoring (68.95 average) and birdies (159 in 32 rounds); second in putting (1.711 average on greens hit in regulation); third in greens hit (76.4 percent); and fifth in sand saves (65.7 percent).
"I try to picture the shot, step up and hit it," Couples said of his approach to the game. "I'm not someone who hits a bad shot, then stands there and tries to figure it out."
In the past he has been accused of being unfocused on winning, apathetic and absent-minded. He has forgotten to enter tournaments. At the 1986 Western Open he said that if he won, he was going to take the rest of the year off (he lost to Kite in a playoff). In early '91, Tom Weiskopf said Couples had "great talent, but no goals in life." Those close to him, though, say there's fire under the nonchalance. And Couples, who was in quoted in 1986 as saying that golf was a low priority, says he has private goals.
His approach to life is similarly laid-back and mellow. That contributes to his being one of the most likable players among peers and galleries. He is stylish and popular to the point spectators recently have rooted against his playoff opponents, Davis Love III and Corey Pavin.
"His personality isn't one that wants the attention, but he deserves it," said O'Meara. "He may not admit it, but inside he wants to win as bad as the rest of us."
Couples says he likes to work in the yard and drive, wash and wax his collection of four 1969 Mustang cars. He says he likes to watch his wife, Deborah, a former tennis pro, play a mean game of polo. Couples, who met Deborah at a football game while both were attending the University of Houston, is an avid sports fan. He is into antiques and bicycling.
And he is into privacy.
He doesn't allow reporters or photographers to visit his home. This is the guy who said, "I never answer the phone because I'm afraid someone's going to be on the other end." And when he does talk with the media, he speaks in ellipses, rarely finishing a sentence, scatter-shooting his thoughts. Such as: "To be on commercials, I try to stay away from that."
That he is uncomfortable discussing himself was made clear when he accepted the 1991 PGA Tour Player of the Year award. "I really don't want to talk about myself," he said at the banquet in January. "I want to talk about what the PGA Tour means to me. It means hanging out with my buddies."
Now it means more autographs, more interviews, more requests for his time, and he says he's concerned about not snubbing people. "You can't sign autographs for 50 little kids when you've only got 10 yards to walk," he said.
Defending Players champion Steve Elkington says Couples needs to "step forward and deal with his No. 1 stature more than he does. He's kind of elusive. I think he's obligated to talk with the press more."
"I'm more interested in taking care of myself," he said. "Some people want you here, some want you there. I could win three tournaments in the next five weeks, but my schedule's set. I'm not going to do things differently."
?3 On Sundays, on short grass, he should hope not.