King Of Swing

Fred Couples, the hottest player on the PGA Tour, has precious little to say, but his smooth stroke speaks volumes
March 16, 1992

Fred couples has a delicious swing, perfect clothes, Prell hair, a monster wallet and a killer wife. He docs everything well—except finish his sentences.

"I don't know," Couples says, "I really think.... I just don't.... Some guys can really.... But I guess I'm kinda like my dad. I just hate to...."

Talk about yourself?

"Right," he says, immensely relieved.

Why?

"Well, I don't see.... I don't.... I don't even get into it. It's something I don't think is very important to go...."

Yes, well.

When interviewed, the 32-year-old Couples sounds like AM on scan. The words start to come out, double-clutch, regroup in his throat and then boycott the sentence altogether. Somewhere along the line, Couples had an ego bypass, the result of which is terrible for someone who is the hottest player in American golf; who was last season's PGA Player of the Year; who won the 1991 Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average, as well as three tournaments; who was the Schwarzkopf of the stormin' American Ryder Cup team; and who deposited hulking stacks of cash in banking institutions in his hometown of Palm Beach, Fla. Seve Ballesteros recently called Couples the best American player. And get this: Couples has finished sixth or better in 16 of his last 20 tournaments. This is the stuff that slays other players. "That sounds like something Jack Nicklaus might have done in his prime," Johnny Miller, working for NBC, said as he watched Couples during the telecast of the Bop Hope Chrysler Classic in January. "That's incredible." Couples is either going to have to learn to talk about himself or join a monastery.

Wouldn't you like to know how a man who made more than $3 million over the last four years did it without ever taking a lesson? How somebody with a jewel thief's grace, a baccarat player's looks and a royal gait can stroll into a packed bar and order hot chocolate? How a man who is in demand all over the world for as much as $50,000 per exhibition appearance can constantly say nyet so he can lie on his couch and watch TV? ("I don't read at all," he once said, only half kidding. "I don't know how.") How a guy who wears clothes so wonderfully well that the company that bedecks him (Ashworth) went from annual sales of zilch in 1987 to $17 million in 1991 can't be dragged out dancing by a team of wild Clydesdales? How a player with whom golf clubs look so right that one manufacturer (Lynx) has just agreed to pay him $4 million over five years to use its sticks cannot understand the first thing about the golf swing?

Being with Couples for a tournament is like spending a week in a paddock with Seattle Slew. Men are aching, fillies are drooling, public-relations men are doing double-tuck layouts, but it seems to have no effect on the star. When Couples won the Player of the Year award, his acceptance speech, start to finish, was: "I really don't want to talk about myself. I want to talk about what the PGA means to me. It means hanging out with my buddies. I don't do much else but sleep and cat, and because of all of my friends, they voted me Number One. Thanks a lot."

Stress has never been within a par-5 of Couples. He is the guy who can't find his car keys, takes the wrong turn, arrives 10 minutes late and is the siren-tripping, bell-ringing, prize-winning One Millionth Customer at the grocery store. One day in 1980, when Couples was still an amateur, he showed up in California at the Queen Mary Open in Long Beach and, realizing the tournament didn't allow amateurs to play, turned pro. Snap, like that. Couples even fell in love by accident. He was a junior on the golf team at the University of Houston when he met fellow student Deborah Morgan, a blonde California knockout whose intellect and energy reserves run deep. She flirted with him during a football game at the Houston Astrodome in 1979 ("I didn't say anything," Fred says. "I just stared"), thinking he was a Cougar baseball player. He wasn't, but she liked him anyhow. Deborah turned out to be the anti-Fred, an internationally accomplished polo player who now owns and trains eight ponies, teaches tennis, collects antiques, owns and operates an interior decorating business and spends the rest of her time trying to separate Fred from his remote control. "I just tell her, 'You go to the ball, or whatever,' " he says. " 'When you come back, I'll be right here.' "

It is a standing joke on the Tour that Couples could have won twice as many tournaments as he has—if only he had remembered to enter them. Last year he forgot to enter Doral, played on a course he dearly loves. "That's just plain stupidity," said his friend and fellow Tour pro Mark Calcavecchia. And legend has it that in 1987 the incredibly polite but absentminded Couples approached the registration table at the Houston Open and....

Couples: "Yes, ma'am Can you tell me if I have a courtesy car this week?"

Secretary: "No, I'm sorry, Mr. Couples. You don't."

Couples: "Oh, that's O.K Can you tell me what time 1 play in the pro-am?"

Secretary: "I'm sorry, Mr. Couples. It looks like you're not in the pro-am."

Couples: "Oh. Well, what time do I tee off Thursday?"

Secretary: "Uh, you don't. You're not entered."

Yes, well.

But when the planets all align and Couples gets his entry in on time, get thee to his gallery, because he can do undoable things to a golf ball. Owing to a middle-class Seattle childhood—his parents, Tom and Violet, worked for the Parks and Recreation Department and for an aeromechanics union, respectively—during which he gathered range balls half the day and hit them for free until midnight, Couples can make golf balls do whatever he wants. He can hit one that hooks 100 yards or slices 100 yards, on purpose. You can pitch him one like Nolan Ryan and he'll hit it 150 yards (both his older brother, Tom, and father were minor league baseball players) with his driver. He can hit one even farther off his knees. He can stand in front of a 180-yard par-3 that would normally take a six-iron and hit a driver instead, snap-slicing the ball hell for leather but somehow making it come down on the green, where it does one mean rumba and sucks to a stop. Or he can lake that driver and hit one 340 yards on a laser line; they don't call him Boom-Boom for nothing. The first time he played PGA West, probably the hardest course in America, he shot 65. Once, at a college tournament, he hit a driver through the fairway and out of bounds on a 410-yard par-4 dogleg, reteed a ball on a pencil and moon-launched it over the out-of-bounds stakes to within 20 feet of the pin, much to the surprise of the players standing on the green. He made the putt. Yawn. Routine par.

But for all Couples's gorgeous raw talent, there still seemed oceans of it unused. In a 1991 television interview, Roy Firestone of ESPN asked him what he would be satisfied with that week in the Los Angeles Open. "If I can come in, play a good tournament, finish third, I will be very happy," Couples said. That drew a rip from Nicklaus, who said, "I don't understand that." (Two weeks ago Couples won the '92 tournament in sudden death.) Former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf once described Couples this way in Golf Digest: "Great talent. No goals in life. Not one. He's not as easygoing as people think. You can see that the pressure does get to him."

Couples's response? "Well, he was a waste product, too." Not exactly the Comeback of the Month, but maybe accidentally truthful. Couples's career looked as if it were heading for the same discard pile of history that Weiskopf's had already landed in—two guys with million-dollar swings and $1.98 hearts. Nobody had a prettier swing than Weiskopf through the '60s and '70s, yet he won only one major. Couples's swing is pretty and slow enough to paint—"He's one of the most talented players I've ever seen," says Nicklaus—and yet Couples, in 11 years on the Tour, has won no majors.

Until two seasons ago his career was a study in waste management. Two years after he won the prestigious Players Championship in 1984 at age 24, his ambitions sank lower than the slump in his couch. "Golf is way down on my list of priorities," he told USA Today in 1986. "I don't give it nearly 100 percent. I just don't practice much. I watch a lot of TV." Forget practice, he didn't even play much. In 1986 he finished second at the Western Open at Butler National, and the next year he went to Wimbledon with Deborah rather than try to win the Western title.

He was the 71-hole champion of the free world. In 1988 he lost the Phoenix Open by duck-hooking his tee ball on the last hole. In 1989, with the U.S. needing only a tie out of him to win the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England, he gagged on a nine-iron on the 18th hole and lost to a gray-haired Irishman named Christy O'Connor. British Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin told O'Connor before the shot, "Just get it on the green. Couples will choke." Jacklin explained his prescience to Golf Digest: "I knew a bit about him.... I'd seen him fold like that before. He just doesn't react well to pressure. He can't handle it."

Couples was a masterpiece at a $49 Starving Artists auction. In his first nine years on the Tour, he won only three times, and anybody who saw that dulcet swing knew something was wrong with this picture. Wasn't he exactly what was wrong with America's young stars—the numerous check-cashing mannequins who knew all too well that the road to a mansion in Palm Beach is lined with eighth-place checks?

But the world was misreading him. Because Couples was so ineloquent and so inexpressive, nobody, sometimes not even Deborah, knew what juices boiled in him. After the PGA disaster, for instance, he didn't sleep the entire night. Deborah had tried to be comforting. "I just can't understand why we don't win one of these," she said to him. Couples didn't feel like talking, so he kept to himself. After the 1989 Ryder Cup fiasco, he cried. He later says it hurt him "10 times worse than the PGA. I had no idea what a big deal that whole thing was."

One shoulder he leaned on that day belonged to Ray Floyd, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain. "There will be other times," he told Couples. And maybe Floyd even began to believe that there would be other years for Couples when the despondent player turned to him during the flight home and said, "When do we start earning points toward the next Ryder Cup?"

Since that moment Couples has not been himself. He has set off for entire weeks to practice and change his game, to (gulp) set goals. Typically, he told nobody. "I think Fred was going to do anything to make the [Ryder Cup] team in 1991," says one of Couples's best friends, Tour pro Mike Donald. During his drive for Ryder Cup points for the 1991 competition, Couples suddenly started getting tournament trophies stuck in his grill. "Before, I'd say, 'I'll get them next time,' " he told a reporter recently. "Well, I'm getting tired of saying that."

He flew to Houston and worked for a week at a time with ex-college teammate Paul Marchand and golf pro Dick Harmon, curator of The Lanny Wadkins Swing. "How do you teach Mozart music?" Marchand asks, but that is what he and Harmon did. Couples's backswing got shorter—Boom-Boom became just Boom—and he started hitting more fairways and fewer Coke stands. One day he hit so many balls, Deborah had to ice down his hands. Still, there were more disappointments. In 1990 Couples took the Sunday lead of the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek on number 12, then bogeyed four straight holes to finish second. But where Deadhead Fred would've shrunk back, Steady Freddy marched on. He won the following year at Memphis and again at the B.C. Open in Endicott, N.Y. In the meantime his buddy George Brett, the Kansas City Royals star, would stay at the Coupleses' house and leave handwritten notes listing goals for Fred hidden in bureau drawers. Couples also spent a week with Tom Watson in Kansas City, trying to get a little of the famous Watson Unmovable Lower Jaw to rub off on him. It must have. Last season nobody finished higher, on average, in the four majors than Couples.

Couples wound up with more Ryder Cup points than anybody else on the Tour and herded them to Kiawah Island in South Carolina in September for the 1991 Ryder Cup—and blessed redemption, "I wanted to go from being our worst player to maybe being our best," he says, and damned if he didn't. He won 3½ points out of a possible four and with his partner, Floyd, thumped the two biggest golf sharks in the world, Britain's Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo. Couples's heroics helped the U.S. win back the Cup. It easily goes down as his greatest moment.

Who knows why it happened? Was it the presence of Floyd? "No," says Floyd, "Fred was either going to step up to the next level after what happened in 1989 or he was going to fold up. He went to the next level." Was it Watson? "Nah," says Watson, "Fred is still just learning the game. He's just now learning how to act under pressure." Was it luck? "Hey," says Donald, "Freddy's just beginning to realize how good he is. I'm telling you, the guy plays a different game than the rest of us." It couldn't have been Fred then, could it?

Deborah thinks so.

"That Ryder Cup type of pressure elevated his game," she says. "You have to play under it, you have to get through it and there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and the press is right there and millions of people are watching every breath you take and every move you make. He was devastated by that loss, but he matured and he realized what it took to compete on that level."

Couples hasn't stopped since. After the Ryder he won December's Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica against maybe the best field of the year. In his first six tournaments in 1992 he twice finished one lousy putt out of a playoff, won in Los Angeles and on Sunday finished two strokes behind a torrid Floyd for second at Doral.

Though Couples still has a few glaring gaps in his career—a major or two and a decent speechwriter—he knows who and where he is now. Usually they're both written right thereon the winner's check.

So Fred, what kind of champion would you like to be?

"Well, I'd like to be...I, I, I think.... To play well and have people recognize you and.... That's important but it's not important. And...."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY LOWECouples's form on the course is a true work of art; just don't ask him how to analyze it. PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT USAA Couples victory montage (clockwise from above): hitting at the '84 TPC, whooping in L.A. in '92 and jamming in Jamaica in '91. PHOTONADIA BOROWSKI/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER[See caption above.] PHOTOJIM MORIARTY[See caption above.] PHOTOACEY HARPERDeborah is more varied than Fred, polo being one of her passions.
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)