Almost up the creek, Couples banks a break


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As Fred Couples reflects on how golf so much resembles life, the good and the bad, which can't be controlled, he will never forget an errant 8-iron that stayed dry when he anticipated it was going to be what the English refer to as a "liquid disaster."

It was to be the difference, ultimately, between being able to hold a firm grip on the lead and put away the 56th rendition of the Masters tournament or holding his head in his hands and trying to understand why he had "blocked out" the swing.

Couples called it the "biggest break" of his life. The shot from the 12th tee, only 155 yards, with Rae's Creek fronting the green and traps behind, is a test from a mental and target standpoint, plus the winds that often swirl deceptively overhead but not necessarily at ground level.

Because the ball stayed on the steep embankment and didn't trickle into the water, allowing him only inches of operating space, he was able to come away with a hard-earned par rather than looking at a double bogey or more.

Instead of losing two strokes -- the difference between his score and that of runner-up Raymond Floyd -- he was able to walk away from the hole without having to give anything back. "It was unbelievable the ball stayed up," he said. "Most of the time, it'll roll down the slope and into the creek."

When Couples got to where the ball was positioned, he found it offered a good lie even though it was in a hazard, which meant he couldn't ground the club. He made a delicate pitch to within 12 inches and recorded what was far from a routine par-3.

So when the afternoon was finally over, the Masters' coat (size 43 regular) and a check for $270,000 belonged to Couples, which tells you that the tournament has a monetary return that's almost commensurate with the immense prestige it represents.

In the language of the athlete, Couples admits he didn't play his best in the final round yet was still resolute enough to prevail. "Off the first tee, I hit the ball in the adjoining ninth fairway and on the second hole, I pull-hooked into the azaleas. But I got it around and made a few good up and downs."

The 32-year-old, born in Seattle and now living in Palm Beach, Fla., entered the final round trailing Craig Parry by a shot but left him in his wake as the Australian shot himself out of the lead and slumped his way home with a lofty 78.

"I felt if I got past that predicament at No. 12, I was going to win," Couples said. "But I still had Raymond Floyd to worry about and six more holes." Yet he never faltered and held off the pack until Floyd, the man he respects so much, came out to congratulate him after it had all been decided.

When Floyd talked about the victory of Couples, which was his first Masters' triumph after eight previous tries, he said this elevated him to a higher plateau and will be significant to his future.

"I believe Fred can win as many times in the Masters as Jack Nicklaus [who has won six] and Arnold Palmer [a four-year champion]. You win tournaments the way Fred won this one. He did all the things that were needed."

In the 1989 Ryder Cup, Couples missed the final green with a 9-iron and lost the match. He wasn't ready to slash his wrists but the disappointed bit into him emotionally.

Floyd, who captained the team, told Fred he alone didn't lose the Ryder Cup and should put the thought out of his mind. "That shot he missed in the Ryder Cup made a better player out of him," insisted Floyd. "I felt someday he would say to me, 'I didn't believe it but, darn it, you were right.' "

In turning a negative into a positive, Couples is now over $1 million for the year in purse money and it's only April 13. In his last 25 starts, he has 20 top-six finishes, including winning six times, going back to the U.S. Open last summer.

His Masters performance was exceptional. He had rounds of 69-67-69-70. One less shot on Sunday and he would have been the first man in history to have played every round in the 60s.

Fred Couples has found the consistency that always seemed to escape him. But if the ball doesn't stay on dry land at the 12th hole then he might still be considered the player with vast potential who hasn't yet won a major.

He personally took charge of asserting himself and now more glorious achievements await.

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