Sneaking Up On Stardom

Fred Couples doesn't like to blow his own horn, but he's so talented that his game speaks for itself
January 07, 1985

It's silent on this cool December day as Fred Couples, driver in hand, steps to the tee before a modest pro-am gallery. His smooth backswing does nothing to disrupt the calm, although it does convey a powerful sense of leverage. There is quick movement and—crack!—a tiny, hissing comet rises against the Florida sky, its head hanging above the middle of the fairway for a long moment as the tail slowly disappears. When the illusion finally fades, a golf ball has come to rest 310 yards away, and the gallery is gazing in wonder.

Father Eric Peters smiles. "Tremendous, Fred, magnificent," he says as the nonchalant Couples strolls toward the ball. Before following, Peters says to a companion, "You know, there is so much beauty in the world."

Father Peters, a 32-year-old Catholic priest, is probably the world's biggest Fred Couples fan, even though he has seen him play only twice in person. "I guess I just appreciate God-given talent," Peters says. He also admires Couples's tranquil manner, noting, "Fred obviously has a deep inner peace." Like any golf fan, Peters is a sucker for a handsome, athletic kid who can hit the ball off the world, who would rather try to nail a seven-iron 200 yards over a stand of sequoias than chip back into the fairway, who has great touch around the greens and who regularly raps five-footers into the back of the cup.

Of course, even Peters would admit that most golf fans know Couples best not for his shotmaking gifts but for the running straddle-jump his energetic wife, Deborah, planted on him after he had won the 1983 Kemper Open in a five-way playoff. Still, it's fairly common knowledge that Couples is the fresh-faced slugger who beat Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros in the 1984 Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla. But few besides Peters could tell you that the 25-year-old Couples has amassed more than $700,000 in his four years on the PGA Tour. Or that he ranked seventh on the money list in '84, with $334,573. Or that he finished in the top 10 in the '84 Masters and the U.S. and British opens.

For his part, Couples is not too crazy about what goes with being a rising star. If he were, he would have scratched and clawed to become the leading money-winner—he was second on the list as late as June—instead of putting his game in what his caddie, Linn Strickler, calls "cruise control" and sitting out 15 of the last 27 tournaments. And he wouldn't have downplayed his long tee shots, which averaged 276.3 yards, No. 2 on the tour to rookie Bill Glasson, who hit 'em 276.5 yards.

"Everybody is wooing Fred," says his agent, John Lynch, who walks the fine line between protecting Couples from distractions and making sure his client doesn't totally ignore the pot of gold being thrust at him. So far, Couples has commercial affiliations with Wilson and with LaQuinta (Calif.) Country Club, though there is talk that his ruddy features, thick brown mane and broad shoulders may soon appear in an ad as part of a six-figure endorsement package. "Fred is different from most of the players," Lynch says. "He just doesn't care that much about money. And for a guy with his talent, he is almost entirely without ego."

It's true. Trying to get Couples to say something even marginally brash about his remarkable game is like waiting around a par-3 for someone to score a hole in one. "Talking about myself to someone—it's hard to do," he says haltingly. "I've seen other guys way up there say how great they were playing, and now they aren't up there anymore. I'm an everyday person, and I just want to keep an even keel."

Not that Couples lacks confidence. "You have to be cocky, in a way," he says. "But I'm not into shaking my fist after a good shot or anything. I do it inside myself. I say, 'Hey, that was good.' "

Couples is sitting on a couch in a rented condominium in Largo, Fla. after his last golf round of '84. He and Jan Stephenson, the defending champions, have finished tied for 25th in the J.C. Penney Mixed Team Championship, and he missed a three-footer on the last hole. Couples looked less than pleased after signing his scorecard, though he brightened appreciably after leaving the clubhouse. "For me, staying around the golf course is bad, whatever I shoot," he says. "I need to get away so I can start fresh."

Couples has become one of the top 10 or 15 players in the world with a public-course swing that he practices just enough to loosen up and an attitude that seems to say, "C'mon, guys, what's all the fuss about?"

"You can't not like Freddy," says pro Mark O'Meara. "There's nobody out here like him. I think guys are just happy he hasn't realized how good he is."

Couples may not know how good he is, but he does know he wants to fend off the responsibilities of being a businessman for as long as possible. "I just want to act my age," he says. "I don't think you should try to act older." So far, no one has accused him of being executive material. "I don't always plan ahead real well," he admits. He forgot his passport on the way to the British Open this year and had to fly back from Chicago to Los Angeles to get it. He has pulled out of a few tournaments at the last minute. Mostly, though, Couples's ways are a source of amusement on the tour.

Practice rounds for the hang-loose foursome of Couples, Dan Pohl, Tom Purtzer and Jay Haas—the first three are statistically the longest drivers on the tour over the last five years—are informal affairs that sometimes deteriorate into trick-shot contests. And when no gallery is around, Couples can ham it up. His specialty is the "space rocket slice," performed best on par-3s. He tees the ball on a pencil so he can catch it on the upswing, takes a full cut with a driver and steps back as the ball does a soaring right turn before plummeting to the green. "You ought to see that thing back up when it hits," says O'Meara.

Even during a tournament round, Couples might try to cut a three-iron when everyone else is hitting two clubs less. "Fred thinks of himself as an athlete," says Strickler. "He manipulates the ball just to keep from getting bored." Of course, it's possible that Couples is really up to something important, like countering the constant tension that can slowly suffocate even the toughest pro. His approach seems to pay off when the tension is highest. Couples's scoring average in the fourth round the last four years is 71.28, putting him in the top 10% among all pros. And his two victories came in pressure cookers you wouldn't wish on the average young pro.

At the Kemper in June of '83, Couples, T.C. Chen and Scott Simpson shambled along in a five-hour fiasco of foozled shots and three-putt greens that has been dubbed "The Longest Day." Yet on the second hole in the playoff, Couples shrugged off a whole afternoon of choking ("I don't know, I just got very relaxed," he says), struck a perfect five-iron to within two feet and sank the putt to win it.

Couples started the fourth round of the 1984 TPC with a two-shot lead, playing in the last group with Watson and Ballesteros. The margin was down to one after Couples bogeyed the 7th. But just when everyone thought he would turn to tapioca, Couples hit a two-iron to within 18 inches of the 8th hole for a birdie. He made another birdie at the 9th, and the two superstars fell away. Says a duly impressed Ballesteros: "Fred has a very strong game, but the most important thing about him, he is very cool. Nothing bothers him."

It's a good thing, because a close look at Couples's swing—he's had it since his boyhood in Seattle—makes purists blanch. "It's the way a 12-year-old would swing it if you handed him a club," says Dave Williams, his coach at the University of Houston. Says Watson, "Fred's mechanics aren't perfect, but he has great rhythm. Great rhythm can overcome a lot of little flaws."

Couples is relaxed—what else—at address, although one quickly notices the caddie-yard grip that would seem to invite a hook. His takeaway is smooth and his shoulder turn enormous, but—oops—at the top of his swing the club is pointing 30 yards to the right of his target. But on the downswing he quickly drops the club into the classic position and proceeds to give the ball a full hit with the right side. He finishes with the hands on, not above, his left shoulder. "I don't do impressions of Fred Couples because I don't want to break my back," says Peter Jacobsen, the tour's Rich Little.

Even before he grew to his current 5'11", 185 pounds, Couples was capable of hitting the ball astonishing distances. And before he cut back his swing slightly after suffering some lower-back pain in his second year on tour, he was longer than he is now. His former Houston teammate Jim Nantz recalls a tournament in Tyler, Texas in which Couples drove through the fairway and out of bounds on a 410-yard par-4 with a sharp dogleg right. "Fred walked back to the tee, teed the ball on a pencil and launched it over the trees," Nantz remembers. "About 10 seconds later we hear all this cheering from the green. The ball was 20 feet from the hole. Of course, Fred made it. Easy par."

It wouldn't be simplistic to say that life itself has been pretty easy for Couples. In a happy sports-oriented boyhood in the footsteps of his father and older brother, both of whom played pro baseball, Fred got serious about golf at age 11 and made Seattle's Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course his second home.

He won some junior tournaments around the state of Washington, and got a scholarship to Houston when Williams heard that Couples hit the best trouble shots anyone had ever seen. But Couples got his game into shape at Houston, making first-team All-America twice and finishing as low amateur in the '79 U.S. Open at Inverness.

It was during his junior year at Houston that Couples met Deborah Morgan, a scholarship tennis player. She was his first girl friend, and they were married after he left school at the end of his junior year. After four years together, they seem to be a good team. In contrast to Fred, Deborah, a teaching tennis pro in Palm Springs, is extroverted and highly organized. "She's Fred's spark plug," says Strickler. But she has cooled some, at least on the golf course. Before the last round of the TPC, Couples admits, he did suggest she not jump on him if he should win. Deborah complied.

Couples says he likes to play well early in the year so he can take time off to spend with Deborah at their homes in Newport Beach and Rancho Mirage. These are not times when he does much, if any, practicing, but that's his style.

"Someday I might look back and say I should have worked harder," he says. "But now it's the furthest thing from my mind to be the best player in the world." He pauses. "Maybe fifth best."

Fifth best? Look out, everybody. Fred Couples may be deciding he's pretty good, after all.

TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERDeborah is Fred's top fan and the "spark plug" of the Couples couple. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERCouples's 276.3-yard tee-shot average was No. 2 for '84. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINOn the greens, Couples putts with a surgeon's touch.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)