What Fred Couples doesn’t know about Augusta National isn’t worth knowing. The 1992 champion tees it up for the 36th time at the 2021 Masters. Here, he considers the challenge and looks back on his finest hour...
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Three minutes have passed and Fred Couples is still only part way through answering our first question. Get him talking about The Masters and the stories will flow out of him like golf balls being retrieved from Rae’s Creek. He calls Augusta National his favourite place in the world, and with good reason. In 34 appearances, ‘Boom Boom’ made the cut 30 times, finished top-10 on 11 occasions, won in 1992 and went close in 1998 (T2) and 2006 (T3).
Couples also shares the record with Gary Player for most consecutive cuts made: 23, spanning 1983-2007. Fewer places have been kinder to him, particularly on the Sunday in 1992 when his tee shot on 12 hit the bank and miraculously stuck, refusing to submit to gravity and enter the pond. It was, he laughs, “the break of a lifetime” and remains one of the most talked-about moments in Masters history. It was also one of the most pivotal. Couples would eventually win by two to claim his first and so far only Major.
He chunters at the reminder of the “many Major disappointments” after that, but perks up when the conversation turns to 2010 and the frenzy he caused when he turned up sockless – wearing what looked like boat shoes – and shot a six-under 66 to lead after round one.
He never did become the oldest winner at the age of 50, but he did unwittingly become a style icon overnight by kick-starting the hybrid footwear revolution. The publicity that week was worth $55 million to Ecco, so much so that the words ‘Fred Couples’ and ‘Ecco’ were, the day after the Masters, the 11th-most Googled words around the world. He was trending in every sense.
To commemorate the 10-year anniversary, Couples will be wearing a limited-edition pair of the Ecco Golf Street shoes he wore when he makes his 35th Masters appearance next month, a record bettered by just 10 men. But as he happily told us, he has no intention of hanging up his spikes just yet...
How often do think about that shot on the 12th back in 1992?
Even 10, 12 years after that tee shot, wherever I went people would talk about it. Now it’s so long ago that it’s only really brought up by real close friends who want to tease me, but it was a break of a lifetime. I probably would have made double [if the ball had rolled into the water], but I guess I just got lucky enough that it didn’t trickle down the bank into the water.
What is it about that hole that catches so many people out?
It’s not really a hole you’re ever going to feel comfortable on. It’s like the 17th at TPC [Sawgrass]. There are some guys who can’t play that hole, whether they’re in first place or 52nd place. But the funny thing is, I’ve hit it in the water more on 12 at Augusta than I have the 17th at TPC. When I got on the 12th tee in ’92, I had a two- or three-shot lead. I told myself, if... if... if... If I get this on the green, it’s over. That’s not a thought process you want but I was choking. When you’ve seen so many people over the years go in that creek, your mind starts going crazy.
How many times have you watched your win back since then?
I have watched other tournaments back a little bit more. There are so many disappointments in Majors that I’ve had, and two or three of them were at Augusta. Some of those I thought I should have won, I’ve looked back to see why I didn’t – including a couple of British Opens. But I could probably go through the whole 18 holes with you from Sunday and tell you where I hit my shots from. It’s still fresh in my mind.
In 34 starts at The Masters, you’ve only ever missed four cuts. What’s your secret?
I do well at Augusta not because I hit the ball high or draw the ball; it’s because I do very, very well on the greens. I’m a very good lag putter, and if you can save a shot by two-putting the 10th hole from the back-right of the green when the pin is on the front-left... you’re gaining shots on the field. You can’t not have a good putting week there and do well. It’s impossible.
One of the perks of winning the Green Jacket is attending the Champions Dinner. What’s that experience like?
The Champions Dinner is probably the most special night of the year for me. The thing usually ends at 8.55pm, no matter what. One year Arnold Palmer stood up and gave a little speech and it might have overrun, but normally you’re in your car at 9pm and heading home.
I sit next to Ray Floyd and next to him is Tom Watson, then Jack Nicklaus and it used to be Arnold Palmer, so I am very fortunate.
Actually, when the Eisenhower tree blew down [in 2014], Augusta made a wooden plaque for all the past champions. It’s just the coolest thing. I’m not sure how many there are, but you would probably have to kill me to get it. When you win, you certainly get a trophy and then a locket on the night of the dinner, so Tiger will get another this year. He’ll be at the head of the table with Ben Crenshaw. I usually stare at everyone because they are really fixtures of golf. It’s an amazing week.
This year will obviously be slightly different. How many times have you played Augusta outside of April?
I’ve been one time. I wasn’t doing too well, but a friend of mine called me up and said, “A few members are going, do you want to come?” It was late November and we played two days in a row. I hit a driver-2-iron into the first green, but it was into the wind and probably 40-45 degrees. I’ve been told November is usually 55-65 and the wind will blow in the opposite direction, so of course a lot of holes will play different. From my experience, I can tell you the course is still phenomenal but it plays brutal.
Brooks Koepka has said he thinks the winning score will be around level par. Do you agree?
I will tell you this much: If it’s windy and cold, it’s not going to be easy. But these guys are so good that they will figure things out in their practice rounds, and eight-to-10 under will probably win. It’s a unique challenge for everyone, including for Augusta to set the course up for November because they’ve never done it. Brooks may be right under certain circumstances, but I think he can shoot under par every round.
A lot of people are curious to see how Bryson DeChambeau attempts to tackle Augusta, even more so after the US Open. How impressed have you been with the gains he’s made since the restart?
To go back a little further, at the Presidents Cup I was assistant captain and I walked around with his group in the first practice round. He had a driver with a lot less loft and he was hitting it so far that I was like... “Wow”. But that was in December. Then you fast-forward to the restart and he’s just playing golf on a different planet. He’s not followed anyone and I’m not sure anyone will ever follow him, and that’s the unique thing.
Would I tell my 12-year-old son to start using these big grips? It’s a weird combination but I’m enamoured by what he’s doing. I was watching him in Detroit and he just kept pounding driver. When he was missing the fairway, he still had 8-irons into par 5s and sand wedges into par 4s, and that’s a huge advantage, especially at Augusta. But then he’s not the only one who can do that. There’s a list of guys. Even Phil Mickelson, at his age, is talking about distance and there’s a reason for it. If he was still in his 30s, he would probably be looking at Bryson and going, “I can do that”.
So, do you think Bryson is the man to beat this year?
Right now, I think he’s got to be one of them. It’s always the same names every year: the Dustin Johnsons, the Rorys, the Tigers, then there’s Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka. And now you can throw his name in there. He can definitely drive the 3rd green but I don’t know if there are any others. I was actually thinking the other day – just because my mind always wanders – I think he can drive seven holes at St Andrews. If the British Open was played this year at St Andrews, I think he would be the favourite over Tiger Woods.
There’s been talk of Augusta extending more of their holes. Would you be in favour of that?
I don’t think so. Augusta is plenty long enough. Is the ball going too far? Some people think so but there are going to be other college players coming out and hitting it as far as Bryson and Cameron Champ. Bubba Watson used to be stupid long, but now there’s 20 guys who drive it where Bubba drives it.
I actually think they’ve missed the boat a little bit now. When I was 53 or 54, I was a better ball striker than when I was 29-30, but that’s purely because of the clubs and the ball I was using. My swing was no different.
So, do they need to rein the ball back in?
Yeah, but that’s been talked about for so long. Five or six years, we had the Berenberg outing at Wentworth and Gary Player stood up and said, “Soon there will be guys driving 400-yard par 4s.” To be quite honest with you, there were a few chuckles in the room, but now it’s happening. I don’t know what the answer is. You can build longer courses but who’s going to play them, other than the pros?
If you are a 10 handicapper, you would not play the back tees at Augusta because it would be ridiculous and you wouldn’t reach a hole in two. Cutting back the ball is the logical thing to do because Bryson would still be the longest hitter on Tour, but he’ll just be hitting it shorter like everybody else.
Do you still feel like you can contend at Augusta?
Well... yeah. A couple of years ago I went and made the cut and my back was, like, gone. There were a couple of stretches of holes where I could barely hit it but I pulled off some miraculous shots. But then last year I went in feeling incredible and I think I shot 71 the second day and the only reason I’m saying that is because it was the easiest 71. I was never in any danger. But I shot 78 on the first day and made doubles on the 13th and 15th by really panicking, just hitting stupid shots.
My point is that I can contend for me, which is making the cut. I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t think I could do that. This year it’s going to play really, really long, but I’m pretty good with my 3- and 4-iron and rescues, so we’ll see. If I’m feeling healthy, I can contend to a top 20.
How long would you like to keep teeing up?
Length is the big deal. I know I can’t compete with these kids off the tee, but I’m not taking a spot from anyone. Everyone is in the field because they’re supposed to be in. If I feel like I am right now in five years, I hope I can play until I’m 65.
You’ve mentioned your back. How long has it been troubling you?
Well, oddly enough the first major blow out was in 1993, the year after I won. When my back blows out, it’s a bit like that clip they always show of Tiger when he clutches his knee and leans on his club. It’s that bad. I’ve explained this to Tiger, that I would wake up some days and feel like I just can’t swing a club. I would end up playing a weak cut shot just to get by, but it’s a nuisance for sure. I can still swing a club and I haven’t had any surgeries, and I don’t want any surgeries yet. In my brain, I feel like I can compete on the Champions Tour and even if you said go play the PGA Tour next year and play 20 events, I’d probably have three good finishes in me.
But your body wouldn’t allow it now?
No. I don’t practise. I don’t chip and putt. I don’t bang drivers, I just show up every now and then and play when I feel like I can. I’m not going to play 15 tournaments ever again.
Just on Tiger, has he ever come to you for advice on managing his back?
I don’t see him much, but I text him all the time. I’m not really like his father, but I try and help him. I tell him, “Tiger, you’ve got to put your feet up and rest a little bit now”. One time I told him that since I was 35-years-old, I haven’t practised my putting or chipping for more than 15 minutes. That was shocking for him. If I overdid it, I would come home the next day and it would be hard for me to get out of bed. I think he’s come to realise the days of standing for an hour every day putting are long gone. But I’ve told him, it’s all about getting his game in shape for the four Majors. If he’s smart and doesn’t hit any snags, he can still contend in most the tournaments he plays. He’s still got a lot of gas left in the tank.