Masters is testing '92 model Couples


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are moments when the plot unfolds without a twist. When it follows the line everyone thought it would. Unswervingly. As straight as a tie with little blue ducks on it.

Duke wins. Broncos lose. The butler does it.

No surprise.

Chalk horse wins by five lengths. Rocky gets up off the canvas and knocks da bum out. Clinton goes on TV saying, "I categorically deny . . . "

No surprise.

Enter the Masters, twistless 1992 edition, which has become exactly what everyone expected: Fred Couples' crucible. A very green and public exam to determine if he really has gotten off his beloved couch and become a major player.

That's major as in sufficiently substantive to win a major championship, a promise long expected of Couples and his sweet swing, but never offered until this year.

Never offered because he had this aimlessness about him. Yes. He just didn't seem to care enough. Fact is, until recently Couples, 32, was notable mostly as golf's most accomplished couch potato.

His talent was obvious. It took other players years to develop what came naturally to him: a flawless swing, booming drives. Raised in middle-class Seattle, he was a natural. He'd won eight tournaments and $4 million by the end of 1991.

But the picture was incomplete. He should be better. Care more. Everyone knew it.

Last year he went on TV before the tour stop in Los Angeles and said this: "If I can play a good tournament and finish third, I will be very happy." Jack Nicklaus went crazy, saying he couldn't understand such a lack of ambition. But to the other golfers, it was just a reaffirmation of what they knew -- that Couples wasn't exactly a killer, that his perfect swing was often undermined by his casual attitude.

Couples shrugged at Nicklaus' criticism. He shrugs a lot. You've heard of the Type A personality? Couples is Type Z. He is happiest just sitting on his couch watching TV every night. His socialite wife tried bringing him to parties when they first married. Now she leaves him on the couch, watching TV.

"I just tell her, 'You go on to the ball or whatever, and when you get back, I'll be right here,' " Couples told Sports Illustrated.

The bad part was it seeped into his game. He took a lot of weeks off, and he wasn't a big-play guy. When an essential 1989 Ryder Cup match between Couples and Ireland's Christy O'Conner came down to the last hole, European captain Tony Jacklin told O'Conner, "Just put it on the green. Couples will choke." He did.

All that has changed this year, though. Type Z has zoomed up to Type A. Suddenly, Couples is fulfilling the promise of that swing. No golfer in the past decade has had the kind of run that has been his 1992.

Twenty-two straight subpar rounds. Five finishes in the top three. Two tournament wins, one by nine strokes. Nineteen top six finishes in 23 worldwide starts, going back to last year. As the run reached a crescendo, the people who run the world rankings looked at their computer one Monday and blinked in disbelief: Type Z was the world's top-ranked golfer.

The reasons for his emergence are being debated. Some say he finally matured enough to understand he needed to try harder. Some said he just got tired of the couch. Couples can't seem to make up his mind.

At times he seems to resent the amateur psychology. "I'm the same person," he said, "just a better golfer."

At other times he admits it's all in his changed attitude: "I've put more into it. It's all a matter of caring if I'm one of the best players or not."

Whatever, he was anointed by everyone from Nicklaus to British bookmakers as the man to beat in the Masters. Everyone figured his name would be on the leader board all week. Such matters don't always work out. Many are the golfers whose hot streaks on the Tour haven't translated at majors. Few have that extra stash of the right stuff. But this time there was no twist in the plot.

Couples' crucible. He was right on the lead yesterday as the third round unfolded on a rainy afternoon, looking every bit the golfer who tore up the Tour. Ray Floyd and Ian Woosnam were right with him -- winners of major titles. The issue now is whether Couples is ready to take the step necessary to join them. To complete his leap from the couch to the game's top rack. To prove he has that extra stash.

"I'm dying to win," he said, trying to kill off his famous "third-place" quote, which won't go away.

Just about everyone is conceding that ol' Type Z himself is a changed man, the real thing, a star. A master, even. But is he also a Master? Big difference.

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