SEATTLE -- Last May, the O'Dea High School golf team here arrived for the state tournament at the Mint Valley Golf Course in Longview. There waiting for the players were five dozen new golf balls and a note saying "good luck" from Fred Couples.
The odd odyssey of Fred Couples: From winning the state championship for O'Dea to winning the Masters, from the lonely two-block walk to Jefferson Park from his home on Beacon Hill to the two-block stroll up the 18th fairway of Augusta National with the world watching.
He was no one's prodigy, but everyone's favorite. He didn't pay for a golf lesson until he was on the Tour, because he didn't need it and couldn't afford it.
"There was no one person other than the man upstairs who helped Freddie learn the game," said longtime friend Jay Turner of Seattle. "He just had as much God-given talent as anyone ever has."
But it is important that Couples not forget his roots, buried as they are in the muddy fairways at Jefferson Park.
"Growing up around average people and on a golf course where the fairways are like tournament rough had to help him as a person and a shot-maker," said Turner, the president of Redbird Sports, a Seattle golf-club manufacturer.
With his victory in the Masters, Couples has certified his position as the best golfer in the world. He has earned more than $1 million in less than four months when not one player made that much last year.
But there were times when Couples didn't have the money for green fees.
"He really didn't have anything," said Steve Dallas, who first taught Couples the basics of golf at age 11. Dallas had played baseball with Couples' older brother, Tom, and was an assistant pro at Sahalee.
"I'd take him around to tournaments, but I take no credit for his game," said Dallas, who lives in Mesa, Ariz. "By the time he was 16 he had every shot in the books. He was just born with it. He was a good athlete with good hand-eye coordination, and then he had a terrific imagination. He could imagine himself hitting any shot."
"I remember a tournament at Twin Lakes [near Tacoma, Wash.]. Freddie was about 16. He'd pushed his drive on a long par-5 and had 255 yards from behind trees to get to the green. He aimed the ball out of bounds and cut it 30 yards or more until it ended up 15 feet from the pin and he made eagle."
But besides the natural ability, there was a natural habitat for him to grow.
He lived a couple of blocks from the third hole on the short course at Jefferson. He worked picking up balls on the driving range, but more than money was the opportunity for endless practice and playing privileges.
"We'd all turn our head when he wanted to play," Dallas said. "You couldn't help but root for him and want him to develop that ability."
As a teen-ager, Couples also spent time with Jefferson Park teaching pro Steve Cole, Turner said, but Cole also was reluctant to tamper with natural ability.
Couples was a wonderful junior player in Seattle, good enough to get a partial scholarship to the University of Houston. He was a two-time All-American before joining the PGA Tour in 1980.
The golf world realizes it has something special in Couples. The company that signed him to a five-year, $4 million contract -- Lynx -- reports its sales have doubled this year.
Said Raymond Floyd about Couples after the Masters: "He can win as many of these as Jack Nicklaus [who has won six] and Arnold Palmer [four]. He has the game for this place. He reached another level this week."
Thirty-seven of Couples' 40 rounds on tour this year have been below par. He has won six tournaments in nine months.
Until he loses a major this year, there will be talk of the Grand Slam. No player has ever won the four tournaments that the Grand Slam comprises: the Masters, the U.S. Open, The British Open and the PGA Championship.
In 1960, Arnold Palmer won three.
Ahead for Couples is the June 18-21 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The only players to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year are Craig Wood, Ben Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus.
The British Open will be played in July at Muirfield, Scotland, and the PGA is at Bellerive in St. Louis in August.