Roll over: Couples pulls out the stops


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Fred Couples won the Masters yesterday in a world that makes no sense.

Dogs read books. Rivers run uphill. Politicians are clean.

A world that makes no sense. None at all.

A world in which the principles of gravity do not apply.

Fred Couples won the Masters yesterday because Isaac Newton got it wrong.

"An absolutely unbelievable thing," Couples said.

He hit a ball that belonged in the water in front of the green on the par-3 12th hole at Augusta National. It landed on the bank and began rolling down the closely-mowed slope. Down, down, down.

Rolling just like Mr. Newton said it would roll. Down, down, down. Faster, faster, faster. Heading for the water, water, water. Nothing there to stop it.

And then it stopped.

Six inches from the water. On an incline sharp enough to make a person fall in if he wasn't careful. On grass mowed almost as closely as a green.

The ball stopped. Gravity hiccuped. A dog quoted Shakespeare.

"I don't know why it stopped," Couples said. "I have no idea whatsoever."

Six inches.

"You hit a ball there, it goes in the water," said Corey Pavin, who finished third. "It always goes in the water."

This ball didn't.

It snowed cats in July and Fred Couples won the Masters.

He was three strokes up on the field when he hit the shot.

"I was nervous," he said. "Probably as nervous as I have ever been in my life."

Nervous because he figured this was his defining moment. Figured he probably was safe if he survived this hole. But he still had to get over the water.

Ian Woosnam didn't. Ten minutes earlier, the defending Masters champion had hit a ball that landed in the exact same spot, up on the slick bank, and watched it roll down into the water.

Down, down, down. Faster, faster, faster.

A world that makes sense. Where dogs bark, for instance.

"I tried to aim safe," Couples said. "But, I don't know, I just blocked the shot. As I watched it, I knew it was going to be close."

His heart sank when he saw it hit the bank. It meant he was looking at a double-bogey. A one-stroke lead. Madness.

"If that ball goes in the water like everyone else's," Couples said, "I'm not sure what would have happened."

Said Pavin: "If that ball goes in the water like everyone else's, you have a whole new ballgame. That's Augusta. If that ball goes in the water, you start second-guessing yourself and you're at Amen Corner and everything gets tense. It's all just different."

Then the ball stopped rolling. Six inches. Nothing there to stop it. A hurricane struck Kansas and Fred Couples won the Masters.

"It's the biggest break I've ever gotten in my life," Couples said.

He rushed up to the green. Several tournament officials were standing there silently staring at the ball, as if they'd come across a new etching at Lourdes.

"It was just sitting there perfect," Couples said. "I wanted everyone out of there. I didn't want anyone walking near that ball. One tremor, and, who knows?"

Briefly, he searched the slope for an explanation.

"Maybe a ball mark or something," he said. "But there was nothing."

Nothing. And the rest was easy. Of course. After gravity hiccups, the rest has to be easy.

Couples stood on the bank and chipped to within two feet, then made the putt for a par.

Five minutes later, up ahead on the 14th green, Raymond Floyd chipped in for a birdie. It meant Couples and Floyd probably would have been tied for the lead had Couples' ball gone in the water. Instead, Couples was still up by two. His lead never shrank.

There is something to be said for holding up down that stretch, of course. Many are the golfers who failed on those holes. Couples cruised them.

But life is always easier after it snows cats in July.

"That's how you win a golf tournament," said Floyd, who finished second, two strokes back. "Things like that happen. You have to have breaks. Everything you do isn't going to be perfect in a 72-hole tournament. You need breaks at the right time."

Six inches. The break of a lifetime. A career made.

"You know, I used to see balls stay up there years ago," Couples said. "I think they used to let the grass grow longer. But I haven't seen a ball stay there in a long, long time."

And, how long was that grass yesterday, Freddie?

"Longer than it usually is," he said. "I guess."

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