The big news in professional golf last week wasn't so much Fred Couples' surprising victory in the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., but the fact that the pros sent Count Dracula out for a face-lift and a new wardrobe, and he came back looking like Shirley Temple handing out lollipops. You've got to keep an eye on these crybaby golf pros. They would bulldoze the Alps if they thought it would flatter their games.
For two years the pros had been howling louder than a North Florida wind about the horrors of the design of the Players Club layout, their own course at their own headquarters and the site of their own championship, which has certainly become the "fifth major." The marvelously scenic and testing course, dreamed up by master architect Pete Dye with commissioner Deane Beman whispering into his ear, had immediately taken its place among the great layouts in the world. There was only one terrible problem with it, as far as our pros were concerned: It was too hard. Unfair, they said.
The fact that Jerry Pate had fired an eight-under-par 280 to win the first TPC on the course in 1982 and that Hal Sutton had shot a five-under 283 last year, wasn't good enough proof that the place could be "had" if you played brilliant golf. And the pros weren't willing to give the place a chance to mature or themselves a chance to learn how to play it. So last year a committee of PGA Tour players was appointed to "recommend" changes to Dye and Beman. The committee—Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Jim Colbert, Ed Sneed and Hale Irwin—was to take into account "feedback" from the other tour players. The committee made its report, and Dye made some changes.
Those alterations might not have been obvious to the casual golf fan, 100,000 of whom traipsed around the grounds last week, but 16 of the holes were "touched up" in one way or another. Eleven greens lost some serious contours. The putting surfaces were also overseeded with rye grass and slowed down. Much of the rough and the expansive waste areas were cleared out, almost entirely eliminating lost balls. The only balls lost last week were the ones that got wet. The slower and flatter greens not only equalized things for everybody, but they also made getting "up and down" much easier. And when the weather calmed for the last three rounds, the Players Club lost a good bit of its personality.
Sure, there was still a lot of water and sand out there, but you had to play pretty badly to get in it, as is the case anywhere else. That little horror, the 17th, the 132-yard, par-3 island hole, held up its end, though, and claimed almost enough golf balls to dam up the Intracoastal Waterway, 64 on Thursday alone. But by and large, the real fun was on the scoreboard.
Couples is a likable, grinning, strong-hitting 24-year-old who played golf for the University of Houston. When he was in college he met his rambunctious wife, Deborah, whose white cowboy hat has earned her the tour nickname of Tex. She is now a tennis instructor in Palm Springs, Calif., where the Couples couple lives.
Couples started strolling toward his 11-under 277 and the championship on Friday when he shot a course-record 64 despite bogeys on the 1st and 18th holes. A 64 with two bogeys? On what was supposed to be a monster? Who was kidding whom? Before the tournament was over, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, Craig Stadler and David Edwards each shot 66, tying the previous course record.
In all, there were 89 subpar rounds over the four days, as compared with 66 a year ago. The tip-off came on the first day when the wind did blow—fiercely and unrelentingly, with gusts up to 40 mph—and 13 golfers broke par, led by Jim Thorpe, who shot 68. On the old layout, even par would have been a remarkable score.
The funny thing about it was, Couples, who was pulverizing the course, kept turning his nose up at it. In the previous two TPCs there, he had missed the cut after rounds of 79-80 and 81-84.
After his Friday 64, he said, "I still think it's too hard. My wife stayed in California because we both knew I'd miss the cut again. Now she's flying in. It'll never play any easier than right now."
Couples drove into the rough for a bogey on the 1st hole that day, but promptly went birdie, par, then pitched in an 88-yard wedge shot for an eagle 2 at the par-4 4th. Pitching in was fairly commonplace, in fact. Five guys holed out irons for eagles during the tournament, four of them at the 4th and 5th greens where, in the past, just getting the ball on the green was considered a grand achievement. Anyhow, from the 4th on, Couples holed a bunch of 20-and 30-foot birdie putts on the sluggish greens until he drove into the rough on the 18th and gouged his way out for his finishing bogey. His score was 64 nonetheless, and it gave him a lead he never surrendered. His closing 71 on Sunday was more impressive than his opening 71 or his third-round 71 on Saturday—after which he blew out of the press room to watch the NCAA semifinal between his alma mater and Virginia—because on Sunday he had none other than Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros for partners.
Couples, with Deborah now in his gallery but frequently dashing into the woods to freshen her makeup, was the odds-on favorite to collapse in the final round. He began the day two strokes ahead of Ballesteros, three ahead of Watson and four ahead of Trevino, Stadler and Mark O'Meara.
It looked like tough company for a young guy whose only win in three years on the tour was last June's Kemper Open. And while Couples is a long hitter, he has a tendency to let it fly in the wrong direction. Watson was coming off back-to-back 67s after a slow start; Ballesteros had carved out three straight subpar rounds and looked very confident; Trevino, the grizzled vet, was there to pick up something if anybody dropped it; and Stadler's game seemed to be returning.
Well, the word on Watson was that he had been stealing those 67s with recovery shots, and the book on Ballesteros was that his putter wasn't blazing. Trevino did make a run with a 68 on Sunday, but it was Couples who kept on getting the most birdies. He made five during the afternoon, at the 2nd, 6th, 8th, 9th and 12th holes. Each one came just when he needed it. He had said beforehand, "They're going to want to put some heat on me, but I've got to put the heat on them and I'll be all right."
Couples nursed a three-stroke lead most of the day. At the last tee he had a two-shot edge on Trevino, who had finished in the group just ahead. All other challenges had evaporated. Watson's wildness off the tees resulted in a 76, and Seve's "nothing happened" round yielded only a 74. Now it was merely a case of Couples trying to stay out of his wife's way. A flaming blonde, Deborah had stunned or delighted (take your pick) golf fans and television viewers last spring by leaping onto Fred's body when he had won the Kemper in a five-way sudden-death playoff.
This time, there was the biggest check of the year, $144,000, waiting for Couples at the 18th green if he could only make a bogey 5. What he did was play a one-iron off the tee on the long, water-bordered hole, staying as far to the right as he could. From the rough he hit a 200-yard seven-iron (that's what these guys do nowadays) onto the green, and he coolly took his three putts for the win.
Couples is a fine putter, one of the best, and much more accomplished than he looked on that last green. With 24 birdies in the tournament, he had to be. And Couples is going to win a lot more tournaments, because he has the length and touch to do so. He's no fluke. But it was a soft-touch golf course that brought him TPC fame and fortune, and it will be interesting now to see if the committee will go back to the drawing board. Maybe it will. Watson, who had been complaining that the course was too difficult a year ago, is now saying, "They've made it too easy."
How do you please a touring pro? You can't—unless he wins. Even Couples still disliked the place, but admitted the win "hadn't sunk in yet"—like the swales that used to be on the greens.