SAN FRANCISCO – The Charles Schwab Cup Championship is a play in two acts.
The first act is this week’s season-ending tournament at TPC Harding Park. Fred Couples is the biggest name on the marquee and he has his lines down perfectly.
The second act stretches over 26 events, rewards excellence and consistency in equal doses, and crowns the Charles Schwab Cup champion. The final scene won’t be written until Sunday but Couples is poised to have plenty to say about that, too.
Couples is closing in on his first victory of 2013 and he’s doing it in style. He’s at 15-under-par 198 after a third-round 68 Saturday. That’s good for a dominating 5-shot lead over Mark O’Meara (67) and six shots over three golfers – Tom Lehman (65), Bart Bryant (70) and Peter Senior (72).
Couples has four runner-up finishes this year but acknowledged that the first two rounds he played this week – a pair of 65s – were exceptional.
“The best I played this year … I’m right there,” he said.
Couples has hit 34 of 42 fairways, 42 of 54 greens in regulation, ranks No. 1 in driving and No. 2 in putting.
Couples can’t win the Charles Schwab Cup and the $1 million annuity that goes to the champion but his victory would determine who does: Kenny Perry. The runner-up will earn a $500,000 annuity. Couples started the Charles Schwab Cup Championship fifth in the standings. With a win, he would finish third behind Perry and Bernhard Langer and earn $200,000.
Perry entered the final event with a 612-point lead over Langer in the season-long race. The only way Langer can overtake Perry is to win at TPC Harding Park and add 880 points to his haul. Even then, Perry could earn enough points by finishing fourth or fifth (factoring in ties) to claim the trophy. But if Couples, or somebody besides Langer, wins, the race is over.
After 54 holes, Langer has six golfers in front of him and two others, including Perry, level with him in seventh. Langer’s bid for a monumental upset is hanging by a thread after a third-round 71. Perry shot 4-under 67 and what he really wants is to play well enough in Sunday’s final round to determine his own fate rather than to leave it in somebody else’s hands. But if he has to, Couples’ talented hands aren’t the worst place to put his hopes.
Perry said on the eve of the championship that he had 28 blockers, if anybody else won, so did he. On Saturday before the round, he held a mini-pep rally to boost the troops.
“I went around shaking hands – I was the mayor of San Francisco,” Perry said. “If Freddie can somehow make a couple more birdies, it’ll take the pressure off me.”
Couples, playing over a soreness in his neck, has made 19 birdies in 54 holes.
“Thank God he doesn’t have a good neck otherwise he’d be 30-under-par,” O’Meara said.
There is an inner Fred Couples that seldom surfaces, said O’Meara, who will be paired in the final group with the leader.
“I think (Couples) has a deep desire down inside that doesn't show all the time, to compete and try to win,” O’Meara said. “Even though he looks super relaxed like I don't give a you-know-what, I don't buy that for a moment. He cares. He may put on that persona that he doesn't care, but he wouldn't play the way he does if he didn't care and if he didn't get nervous.
“When you have a 5-shot lead and you're the kind of caliber player that he is, I don't think there's a lot of back up in Fred Couples, in my opinion. So someone like myself or Peter Senior or Tom Lehman is going to have to play extremely well to give him a run.”
Couples has won eight times in 52 events since arriving on the Champions Tour in 2010. He doesn’t play as much as some of the leading contenders, like Langer and Perry, and realizes if he is to contend for the Charles Schwab Cup somewhere down the road, that must change.
“If someone says are you going to win the Schwab Cup, I would have to have the greatest year ever because I'm going to play 14 times where some guys are going to play 22 times and some of those guys are Kenny Perry and Bernhard Langer, who dominate,” Couples said.
Couples, who still plays a few select events on the PGA TOUR, is talking about ratcheting up his appearances. That would be a very good thing for the Champions Tour because Couples is a magnet.
“This year I played Augusta, Los Angeles and Memorial, 13 out here, so that's 16,” he said. “There are 52 weeks, I'm playing 16 of them.”
Then, he added sarcastically, “Wow, I'm really killing myself.”
The magic number in 2014, if he doesn’t have any serious injury setbacks, is 20.
“I'm going to play Riviera and Augusta, so 18 Champions Tour events, I think that's pretty good,” he said. “And if I do well and keep going, I could play like the SAS Championship and Hickory, which would push it to 20.”
And that would be enough to win the Charles Schwab Cup for himself, not somebody else.