AUGUSTA, Ga. — The round ended with a promise, a wistful pledge that Fred Couples hopes he can one day keep.
It was Friday afternoon, and Couples had just completed a 1-under 71 in the second round of the Masters. At age 53, he was scooting past the clubhouse in his pair of spike-less Ecco brand shoes — the sort that make it seem like Couples is late for a back-yard cookout. At age 53, he was leading the Masters for the second straight year. At age 53, he was ready to commit to the same promise he made last April, when he shared the lead on the same day of this tournament.
“Yeah, I would quit,” Couples said. “I’m going to quit when I win this thing. I swear to God, I’m going to retire.”
For a man who is eligible for membership to both the Champions Tour and the AARP, retirement is not some far-fetched proposition. But today, Couples, at 5-under, will begin the third round in the final pairing with Jason Day, who poached the lead with four birdies on the back nine and sits at 6-under for the tournament.
“I’m just having fun watching the (leader) boards,” Couples said.
But first came Friday, a day in which nearly every major contender was chewed up by gusting winds (Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson) and ill-fated bounces (Tiger Woods). In their stead, the easy-going Couples went for a leisurely stroll around the only course that’s ever given him a major championship. He drained a birdie putt at Amen Corner, conquering the par-3 at No. 12, and then closed out his round with a forceful birdie on his final hole, igniting a swelling moment of pandemonium around the 18th green.
When he reached the interview room at Augusta National, Couples’ eyes wandered over to a scoreboard on the wall. Unprompted, he spoke up.
“Are scores going up across the leaderboard?” he asked.
Outside, carnage was taking place. Johnson, who was in Couples’ playing group, went to 7-under after a birdie at No. 13. But he finished with a bogey and two double-bogeys over his last five holes, shanking his hopes for a green jacket with a dunk into the water on the par-5 15th. He finished his round at 1-under for the tournament.
A few hours later, on the same 15th hole, Tiger Woods had stood over his ball, which had come to rest just to the right of a pine tree. His caddie, Joe LaCava, read off a distance, and Woods quickly cut him off.
“No… layup,” Woods said. “I need 70 (yards) to the hole.”
In this moment, Woods was tied with Couples and Day at 5-under, and a birdie would give him the outright lead. But when the plan worked perfectly. He laid up, and Woods’ short approach went right for the flag, only to bang off the flagstick and spin back into the water.
Woods could only slump his shoulders and look toward the ground.
“The sun was in my eyes, so I knew I started the ball on the flag,” Woods would say. “I didn’t know if I cut it enough, but evidently it was a really good one.”
Hours earlier, before Woods’ rotten luck, Couples had uttered some prophetic words.
“The golf course is winning today,” he said.
Couples would know, of course. This is the week that Couples builds for, the week that makes up a large chunk of his competitive golf season. He’s played in just one PGA Tour event this year, and only a handful on the Championship Tour. But these are the grounds that bring back the memories, and he’ll keep returning here until he can’t anymore.
“Fred loves this place,” said Bernhard Langer, another past champion. “I talked to him yesterday, he’s played here 28 times and he’s only missed one cut by one shot. So this is his second home.”
It’s been nearly 21 years since Couples took down Raymond Floyd in the 1992 Masters. But in all his years of coming to this course, he had never arrived to play a practice round on Sunday.
This year, with his 53-year-old game struggling, Couples broke tradition. He hit the course Sunday with his coach, Paul Marchand, by his side. And together, they worked through every stroke.
“When I hit a shot,” Couples said, “he was standing an inch from me saying, ‘Do this’, and it was a little bit of a blessing.”
Even so, Couples says he still played poorly during some practice rounds early in the week. But the man they call “Boom, Boom,” still felt confident. He’d finished in the top 15 the last three years, and he adopted a simple strategy.
“I’m gonna swing as hard as I can,” Couples said.
Now, of course, comes the real question: Can a 53-year-old veteran generate that same power for four straight days?
“Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this?” Couples said. “It didn’t happen last year.”
True enough, Couples skidded early in last year’s third round, then salvaged a 12th-place finish with a better performance on Sunday. One year later, he gets another shot. With Day leading, and Tiger lurking, Couples will take another run at a most improbable Masters victory.
“It’s probably not ever going to happen,” Couples said, smiling. “But I’m going to retire.”