Couples & Love

The aptly named Fred Couples and Davis Love III are the hottest match in golf today
May 24, 1992

"Couples & Love" is not the latest self-help book from Leo Buscaglia. It isn't a new game show for lonely hearts, either. No, Couples & Love was the reason PGA Tour pro Fred Funk was on his way to a course-record 62 at the Houston Open a couple weeks ago and couldn't draw enough fans for a decent bridge game. Couples & Love was why nearly everyone blew past Funk in search of the two best things to happen to American golf since waterproof Foot-Joys: Fred Couples and Davis Love III.

Sorry, Mr. Funk, but American golf does not get reborn every day, and The Freddy and Davis Tour, as Tour veteran Tony Sills calls it, docs not come around every week. Going into Houston, Couples and Love had staged a yearlong scorched-fairway exhibition the likes of which the PGA hadn't seen since the early '80s, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were the dueling darlings of American golf. Between them Couples and Love had won six of the last nine Tour stops, had finished at least second in eight of the nine and had stirred golf fans from their usual Sunday-with-Steve-Melnyk stupor. Couples, a late bloomer at 32, beat Love in a playoff in Los Angeles in February, stomped the field at Bay Hill in March and conquered the Masters in April. Meanwhile, Love, 28, went on a tear himself, taking home huge checks by comfortable margins in three of four tries, including the winner's share he collected in March at the TPC (by four shots), in April at the Heritage (by four) and at his Greensboro III-peat (by six).

Couples was No. 1 in scoring average; Love was No. 2. Couples was No. 2 in birdies; Love was No. 3. Couples was No. 1 in all-around Tour stats; Love was No. 3. Couples was No. 1 in the Sony world rankings; Love was No. 8, with a bullet. Couples was No. 1 on the money list, with $1,010,874 in prize money. Love was on his heels at No. 2, with $1,001,932 on the books. In 1991 no player won more than $1 million.

"In years past it was [Arnold] Palmer and Nicklaus," says South African pro Fulton Allem. "Then it was Watson and [Seve] Ballesteros. Now the new pace is being set by Couples and Love." And the golf world is particularly punchy with delight. It's like going to the airport and trying to decide which long-lost son to hug first. Since Watson last dominated, in 1980 with six Tour wins, American fans have pined for even one great U.S. player to come along. Suddenly there are two, neither of whom speaks Welsh or Spanish or puts shrimps on barbies.

They're on their own level," says 16-year touring pro Jay Haas. "Davis hits shots only Fred can hit, and Fred hits shots only Davis can hit. It's like, O.K., somebody just hit a one-iron off a dirt lie, over some trees, and sucked it hack on the green short of the bunker. It's got to be either Freddy or Davis."

O.K., O.K., so the raves are ridiculously premature, and both players could be back in HalSuttonville by September. But, hey, let's let American golf fans wallow in this wealth for a while.

In some ways Couples and Love are like twins. Says Watson, "They're both very, very long, and that's the biggest advantage you can have in this game." But not only are they very, very long (over the past 10 years Love is first and Couples third in driving distance), they also deploy wicked irons (Couples is No. 3 this season in greens hit, Love is 12th) and are almost clairvoyant with putters (Couples is fifth this season, Love is 12th). Altogether, it's an unheard-of combination, like that belonging to a guy who can move the piano and play Tchaikovsky on it, too. For crying out loud, even Nicklaus couldn't chip.

Couples and Love can also shape a tee shot to fit any hole. They are magicians with L wedges in their mitts. They turn par 5s into Tinker Toys. At Augusta this year both were hitting mid-to-short-iron second shots on the par-5 13th and 15th holes, unthinkable 20 years ago.

They are both so long, in fact, that they have recently had to leash their drivers. Couples has shortened his swing. Love abridged his swing too and now hits a low-trajectory ball.

They are both Tour good fellas and, no joke, good friends. At the '92 Masters, Couples came into the interview room just as the public-address announcer misannounced: "We have Davis Love in the interview room." To which Couples said, "I wish." As Couples conducted a press conference at Greensboro, some pest was throwing ice at him from behind. It was Love. After Couples won the Masters, Love said, "I'm as happy he won the Masters as if I'd won it myself."

It would be hard picturing Nicklaus saying that of Palmer. Or Hogan of Snead. Or Jones of Hagen. Palmer doesn't go to Nicklaus's Memorial tournament, and Nicklaus doesn't go to Palmer's Bay Hill. So there. Snead and Hogan wouldn't have been on each other's MCI Friends & Family lists, either. Once, Hogan was about to drive to the airport from a hotel when a bellhop came running out. "Mr. Hogan, Mr. Snead doesn't have a ride," the bellhop screamed. "Wouldn't you like to give him one?" Hogan paused for a second. "No," he said and drove off.

And yet Couples and Love are as different as ham and eggs. Couples is a man to whom all things come easily. He is one of these guys who wakes up with his hair perfect and who almost always finds a $20 bill in his pants on the way to the dry cleaners. Clothes hang right on him, smiles come easy, and troubles go fast.

Love, though, has a tightness to his face and eyes, a wince that makes it look as if he were undergoing a tax audit. Though likable and warm in private, it would take a court order to unpurse his lips. His walk is stiff and steady, straight and purposeful, like that of a commuter who knows exactly when his train will leave. He wears his cardigans fastened all the way up and his hair straight. And he has the face of a 10-year-old. It all makes him appear to be a boy marching to church.

"I laugh on the course," Love insists, "it's just that I do it between the tee and the green. The camera never shows it." Indeed, Love is an easier read during a tournament than Couples and every bit as friendly in interviews as Couples (Love is also known as an easy touch for baby-sitting on the Tour). But Love's televised face of stone has made him the villain in the Couples-Love rivalry, just as Fat Jack came off as the bad guy in his early wars with the heroic Arnie. The L.A. playoff between Couples and Love was truly a Love-hate affair. Fans even hollered, "Miss it!" over one of his putts. "Freddy's the most popular player on the Tour now," says Love. "I'm used to it."

Couples is like chocolate: Nearly everybody likes him, and most people like him a lot. He resembles a man with an hour to get to an appointment 10 minutes away. He strolls the fairways like a five-year-old, ambling along, poking at things. If there is one thing about Couples that Love doesn't like—and he likes nearly everything—it's Couples's slow pace of play. "I don't mind his speed over shots," says Love. "I just think he could speed up in between shots."

For instance most players put a club back in the bag after hitting. Couples keeps his, the better to swat at the ground as he goes. In fact, the swat he makes at a grasshopper is hardly different from the swat he makes at his Maxfli. He sets up over the ball with a casual grace (no glaring at it like Nicklaus), takes the club back easily, sets it lazily at the top, brings it back inside and through and lets it carry to a collapsible finish at his shoulders. It is a Vermont-syrup swing—slow and sweet. "I've never seen a more wonderful tempo in all my years," says the estimable golf writer Herbert Warren Wind.

And Couples's drives leave the immediate area in a dreadful hurry. Watch him in person, and you'll see the incongruity of it all. How can this lackadaisical pass at the ball produce such violent results? Couples's swing is ridiculously relaxed. Golf World recently ran a picture in which his right hand had actually come off the club just past impact. Couples is so good, he's beating folks one-handed.

Love's swing is classically flawless—it's just not as much fun to watch as Couples's. Love's father was the Tour player and eminent teacher Davis Love Jr., and he taught his son well at the Atlanta Country Club, near the family's home. Name a famous golf teacher, and "Trip," as Love was known to his father, was most likely schooled under him: Jim Flick. Bob Toski, Peter Kostis, Paul Runyan. Love, in fact, may know too much about the golf swing. "I used to get out there and have a hundred swing thoughts," he says. "Now I try not to have any." That's not a problem Couples has. He didn't take a serious lesson until he was in his late 20's.

Love is two-iron thin, 6'3" and 175 pounds. Couples is sturdy, 5'11" and 185, with the haunches of a catcher and the upper body of a halfback. Both Couples's brother, Tom, and his father, Tom, played minor league baseball, but Love seems to be the one born into athletic greatness. He grew up having his cheeks pinched by the likes of Snead and Palmer, Hale Irwin and Nicklaus. Love's father, who died in a plane crash in 1988, was one of the reasons the Tour went to Atlanta. Every night after tournaments there, the Loves' backyard was peopled with legends.

Couples comes from nowhere. He grew up in middle-class Seattle, the son of a parks-and-recreation worker and an administrator for an aeromechanics union. He was a boy scooping up range balls by day, hitting them by night, sometimes as late as 1 a.m., quite often in the rain. Rain like that would ruin a glove, and gloves were expensive, so Couples played without one. Still does—the first Masters champion to do so since Hogan. Love had the run of his father's courses as a teenager, but Couples's father would drop him off at the 4th hole of the local public course so that the eager kid could sneak on and play long after anybody who might care to catch him had gone home.

Now that Couples can get tee times, only Love has caught him. Can Love pass him? Four years younger, Love already has six Tour victories. By his 28th year Couples had only three. True, Love has no majors, but Palmer and Lee Trevino didn't win one until they were 28. Couples is the better escape artist. Tour pro Blaine McCallister says Couples hits trouble shots "that just aren't possible," but Watson says that Love hits it straighter. Love is the more fundamentally sound player, but Couples has more talent. "I see Freddy as the guy to beat the next 10 years," says Love, "as long as he doesn't get too frustrated with constantly being the guy to beat."

He might be already. Couples's corners seem the more tattered by the constant attention. Since his Masters win he has played 10 rounds, nine of them in the 70s, including rounds of 72 and 73 last week at the Byron Nelson Classic, where he failed to make the cut. At Greensboro he snapped at a photographer, a highly un-Fred-like thing to do. Early in his streak he told the press, "I love talking to you guys. I'd come in every day if I could." Lately he seems to have changed his mind. "I shot 73," he said after the first round in Houston. "There's nothing to talk about." Of course, it was his 10th event in 12 weeks. The word no is going to start popping up more often in Couples's speech.

Love seems to be weathering success better, but he's getting squeezed, too. He went into Houston off two straight wins, trying to become the first guy in 14 years to win three straight. But on Saturday he shot a 77, at one point turning to his caddie, brother Mark, and saying, "I've lost my mind out here." He's getting it back, slowly. "Once the novelty of this wears off, and Freddy and I just get into a rhythm, it's going to be fun," Love says.

Couples and Love will face each other eight more times this season—at the U.S. Open, the Western, the British, the PGA, the World Series, the Canadian, the Tour Championship and the Johnnie Walker World Championships. Both want to be the first Tour player to win $2 million in a season; both want to be Player of the Year. And both want to make some Tour history. "I'd like to see if one of us can win five," says Couples. Love goes one better: "I wonder if two guys can win six each."

"Wait a minute!" It was Hubert Green at Houston, interrupting all the wallowing. "You're acting like they're the only ones who can play golf. What about Corey Pavin? What about John Cook? Greg Norman is still available, last I heard. I mean, Fred and Davis are fine players, but what did they do this week?"

Uh, Couples finished 22nd, Love 38th.

"Well?" said Green.

Killjoy.

TWO PHOTOSAPDespite appearances, Snead and Hogan (far left), like Palmer and Nicklaus (above), weren't pals. But Couples and Love are. PHOTONADIA BOROWSKI/THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER[See caption above.] PHOTONADIA BOROWSKI/THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTERLess loved than Couples, Love often finds the going rough.
PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINEven from a dirt lie, Couples wields a wicked iron; he's No. 3 in greens hit.

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)