Saturday, June 5, 2004

Couples battles extremes


Survives 3-bogey start; is one back

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DUBLIN, Ohio - Fred Couples began his second round at Memorial like a hack afraid his boss was going to catch him playing hooky from work on a gorgeous Friday morning.

Bogey, bogey, bogey.

He turned to his caddie.

"Fortunately - or unfortunately - we have 14 holes left," Couples said.

"Let's look at it as fortunately," Joe LaCava responded.

After parring the fifth hole, Couples went birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie to finish off the front side at 2-under-par 34. He then bogeyed 10; birdied 11 and 13; eagled 15; and birdied 16.

He was looking at a 67 and the outright lead - before double-bogeying the 17th and finishing with a second straight 69 for 138, one off the second-round lead.

You think you're going to hear Couples gripe about that double bogey? Ha! For Couples, it's always been a problem-free philosophy (whether he has had problems or not).

It's why everybody loves Fred Couples. As long as he's vertical, he's happy.

Just ahead of him, at the top of the leaderboard with 137s, were Justin Rose, who shot 67 Friday, Stephen Ames, who shot 68, and Ben Curtis, who shot 69. Tied with Couples at one back were Ernie Els (70) and K.J. Choi (67).

"I feel like I can play better over the weekend," Els said. "The wind's tough, the greens are fast - I haven't seen anything quicker than this week - but there's a low score out there, so I just have to keep playing."

Tiger Woods (68) is three back at 140.

"It's like Augusta (here) - they keep changing this golf course," said Woods, who wasn't complaining. "If you remember when (Paul Azinger) holed out that bunker shot on 18 (on Sunday in 1993 to win by a stroke), you go down there now and you can barely see the (sand player's) head. ... You've got to keep learning the golf course every year."

Sergio Garcia (69) is five back at 142. Jack Nicklaus (73) made the cut at 147 and plays the weekend.

Woods' gallery is still the biggest, but no gallery has the pathos of Couples'.

Couples, 44, remains one of the most beloved figures in golf because he's so easy-going, has rebounded from off- and on-the-course woes and considers himself fortunate despite a quirky back that could go out on him at any moment.

As it did two weeks ago Tuesday, when he got up from a chair at breakfast in Korea where he was playing an event on the Asian tour. (The appearance fee must have been big enough to bow Schwarzenegger's back.)

"I just froze; it's the weirdest thing," Couples said. "You would think you would slap (the ball) out of the rough and twist your back in half, but that's never happened. It's usually the dumbest thing."

Anybody with a bad back can relate to the move Couples makes pulling his ball out of the hole. He doesn't lean in to get it; he genuflects with a straight back and reaches down with his hand to retrieve the ball. He rises with the same straight back.

He's been there before. He makes no false moves. He takes no chances.

"I still love to play golf," Couples said. "(Last year) at Wachovia, I was leading the tournament and my back went out. ... It was just a bummer. I mean, I had four holes to go on Friday and I was 8- or 9-under, and for the rest of the year from that point out I had all kinds of problems."

Couples won here in 1998. In this year of the happy winner, no winner of the Memorial possibly could make people happier than Couples.

"If I can do this 10 times a year (play well and be in contention), I'd do it the rest of my life," he said.

E-mail jerardi@enquirer.com




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