Couples claims no lock on U.S. Open Masters champion seeks no attention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The roll is over, the reel has begun. The mood is relaxed, yet the confidence is missing. The game, if not in disarray, is definitely shaky.

Welcome to the U.S. Open, Fred Couples.

Couples has won three tournaments and has earned more than $1 million this year, but the last victory was at the Masters back in April and he hasn't played much golf in a month.

"I had been playing very well and if I hadn't won the Masters, I probably would still be playing very well," Couples said yesterday. "After Augusta, I wanted to get away from golf. All the attention was too much."

Couples has managed to stay out of the spotlight so far this week at Pebble Beach, but it will undoubtedly intensify today when play begins in the 92nd U.S. Open.

Trying to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the Masters and Open in the same year, Couples doesn't sound like the man who until recently had dominated the PGA Tour for most of the past year.

"At the Masters I was playing better than I ever had, so it didn't matter what anybody thought," said Couples. "Here, I think you would make a mistake to put any money on me because I'm probably not going to win. But I do feel that if something good can happen by Saturday or Sunday, maybe I can win.

"Realistically, I'm not going to fool myself and try any less. I just need to play today and hit the ball really well to keep on this confidence thing. I just can't say I won the Masters and that should carry me through the Open. As far as someone to beat, I'm just really like a qualifier, but that's good."

Among those who are being mentioned as pre-tournament favorites are defending champion Payne Stewart, who has emerged from a slump and seems to be peaking; two-time British Open champion Nick Faldo, who has been red-hot in Europe recently; Davis Love III, the PGA Tour's leading money winner this season; and Mark O'Meara, who has won here four times as a pro.

Couples doesn't mind being overlooked, or even dismissed as a legitimate contender. His Open record is merely average, though he did have a career-best third-place finish last year at Hazeltine after taking five weeks off before the tournament. He would be happy just to get his game back close to where it was in April.

"It's getting better," said Couples, who after taking three weeks off missed the cut at Memphis last week. "I played yesterday and I've got a little more confidence. I really didn't feel good about my game until yesterday."

If anything, the recent sabbatical spent vacationing with his wife, Deborah, in the Caribbean and at home in Florida -- "Planting trees, I didn't even look at a club" -- helped rejuvenate Couples. The long stretch of mind-boggling golf eventually wore him down.

It got so bad that during a practice round at Greensboro two weeks after the Masters, dozens of fans were coming onto the fairway asking for autographs. When Couples stepped onto the first tee Sunday, it didn't matter that he was well off the lead. The crowd was 10-deep around the tee. Love, who won the tournament, was virtually ignored.

"It was like a rock-star atmosphere," said Couples, who has always been one of the most easygoing, and approachable, players on tour. "Even though I've been out here for 12 years, I hadn't seen anything like it. I'm not that outgoing, and to have that many people clawing on you was irritating.

"I really want to practice this week. For 12 years, that's what I've done. I don't go to a tournament to talk about myself. I don't think I'm a superstar. Michael Jordan is a superstar because he can dominate every month. A superstar is Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer who did it for 25 years. I did it for eight months."

It wasn't so much that the attention took Couples away from the practice tee, since he has never been considered one of the tour's great grinders. It was simply that Couples couldn't keep up a pace that had produced five victories, and 16 other top-six finishes in a stretch of 27 tournaments.

"I was on a pretty good pace for a long, long time," said Couples. "From L.A. to the Open, I was in the last group on Saturday and Sunday every week. The wear and tear, it sounds stupid, was hard on me. When you're not used to it, it becomes even harder. I've started to practice harder since Memphis. I've taken too much time off, but I feel it's good to do that. There's no way I could keep playing the way I was every week."

Said Love, who also has won three times this year: "Fred's played well for two years, almost perfect for the last year. I've been in his shadow and I know how difficult it's been for me to deal with the extra attention I've gotten. He seems to be back to being Freddie again. Joking around. He seems a little more at ease. I still think he's the No. 1 player in the world."

History would repeat itself if Couples won this week. When Nicklaus won the Open here in 1972, and when Tom Watson won it here in 1982, they were considered the game's best players. They, like Couples is now, were 32 years old at the time of their victories. In Watson's case, he had never won an Open.

"Realistically, last year meant a lot to me because I tied for third," said Couples. "I don't take or leave the U.S. Open, but I know in my mind that to do well in it, I have to drive the ball well. That comes with a lot of confidence. As far as winning it, obviously it would be a big thrill. It would probably be the biggest thing I'd ever done. Not to to take anything away from the Masters, but to beat a U.S. Open course is what you're trying to do."

U.S. Open

When: Today through Sunday, 72 holes of regulation (18-hole playoff Monday, if necessary)

Where: Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links

Who: A field of 156 players, including defending champion Payne Stewart, Masters champion Fred Couples, PGA champion John Daly and British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch.

v,5TV: Today: ESPN, 3-6 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m.; channels 13, 7, 11:30 p.m.-midnight. Tomorrow: ESPN, 2:30-6 p.m., 7:30-10:30 p.m.; channels 13, 7, 11:30 p.m.-midnight. Saturday: channels 13, 7, -- 2:30-7 p.m. Sunday: channels 13, 7, 3:30-8 p.m.

Odds to win the U.S. Open

The favorites

* Payne Stewart (10-1): Defending champion has geared up in recent weeks, with a tie for sixth at Kemper and a tie for third at Memorial.

* Nick Faldo (12-1): Plays well in big tournaments, two-time British Open and Masters champion. Won the Irish Open last month, and has set U.S. Open as his major goal.

* Davis Love III (15-1): Three-time winner this year, including The Players Championship, and has proven he can win on all types of courses.

The contenders

* Mark O'Meara (20-1): Has won four times at Pebble, but has missed the cut at his last three Opens. Local knowledge, as well as crowd support, could help.

* Paul Azinger (20-1): Former champion here who has been on the verge of his first major for a few years. Erratic at the Open.

* Corey Pavin (25-1): Won Honda Classic earlier this year, finished third at the Masters and second two weeks ago at Colonial. Great putter, but the Open has often been grind.

* Fred Couples (30-1): Tour's hottest player and Masters champion has cooled off considerably since Augusta. If he gets off to a good start, he could be in the hunt come Sunday.

Dark horses

* Tom Watson (40-1): Won here in 1982 and knows this course as well as anyone. Broke a five-year winning drought, but the Hong Kong Open isn't the U.S. Open.

* Scott Simpson (50-1): Despite his decline in the past three years, this guy always seems to be at his best at the Open. Won in 1987 at Olympic in San Francisco, lost to Stewart in playoff last year.

* Raymond Floyd (60-1): Has not been in serious contention at an Open since winning at Shinnecock in 1986, but has won this year (Doral) and remains, at age 50, one of the tour's best pressure players.

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