By Vartan Kupelian, Champions Tour Insider
Fred Couples is far from a ceremonial golfer. Whenever and wherever he tees it up, he competes to the hilt.
If ever there was going to be a time when Couples might take a busmans holiday on a golf course, last week’s Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance would have been it. He had plenty on his plate at Muirfield Village Golf Club with public appearances and other duties in his continuing role as captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team.
But none of those prevented Couples from playing a solid tournament. How solid? All the 53-year-old did is outperform the two best golfers in the world, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Couples was paired with Woods and Keegan Bradley, the young American star, for the first two rounds. It could have been a difficult pairing but Couples cruised around Muirfield Village in the unflappable manner for which he is known.
This week, Couples returns to the Champions Tour for the Regions Tradition, the second major championship of the season. It will be his fifth appearance on the Champions Tour this year. In four tournaments, he has a runner-up at the Toshiba Classic and two fourth-place finishes.
Couples will captain the Presidents Cup team for the third time in October when the Americans take on the International side at Muirfield Village. Couples knows all about the course built by Jack Nicklaus and the Memorial Tournament, an event Couples won in 1998. But it’s the first time he studied Muirfield Village from a captain’s perspective. There wasn’t an idle moment and his preparation for the tournament itself was limited.
On the eve of the Memorial Tournament, Couples went to Washington, D.C., where, along with Nick Price, the International captain, he met President Obama at the White House. The 20-minute meeting covered a lot of ground and included a personal invitation from the captains for Obama to attend the Presidents Cup.
“Instead of coming here to practice, they got it cleared to go to the White House,” Couples said at Muirfield Village. “Anytime you can go to President Obama’s, it’s pretty special. It’s been a fun week.”
After a first-round 70 – a shot better than both Woods and Bradley and 8 shots better than McIlroy – Couples stepped into a phone booth and changed into attire more fitting for where he was headed.
“I’m about ready to put a suit on here,” he said before attending a Presidents Cup dinner with Muirfield Village members.
Couples requested the pairing with Woods and Bradley, both of whom will undoubtedly be on his Presidents Cup. Couples knows all about Woods. But he was getting his first look at Bradley, who could be a key contributor for Couples in his bid for a third straight victory as captain. “He’s truly long,” the captain said.
“It's fun for me to get paired with Tiger and Keegan,” Couples said. “And I was a little hesitant really about what I was going to shoot. I was not expecting 70.”
There was no need to worry about that. Couples added another 2-under-par 70 in the third round before a closing 77 dropped him far off the pace at T50, not bad for someone who barely had a chance to hit a few range balls before the first round.
“I asked to see if I could get paired with him - it probably might be my last time playing with Tiger,” Couples said. “Maybe at Augusta I might get paired with him.
“So I was blessed to play with him. And my goal when I play with him always is to try to hit it solid and stay out of his way … (Woods) is the best player, and I play on the Champions Tour so I rarely get to see him. Around Augusta I always try to hit balls next to him, because … Tiger is Tiger.”
Couples made it clear his appearance at the Memorial Tournament wasn’t ceremonial.
“I would never want to take a spot to come play because I'm going to see the guys and look at the course,” he said.
The invitation by Couples and Price to President Obama to attend the Oct. 3-6 Presidents Cup was declined. For now.
“We got a couple of stories and a couple of pictures,” Couples said. “We asked him to come here in October and he said he couldn't do it. And we asked him again and he said he couldn't do it. We said we'd check in a couple more months from now.”
The Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek is his first Champions Tour event since the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf, where he teamed with his Presidents Cup assistant, Jay Haas, to finish T12. It was Couples’ only non-top 10 this year on the Champions Tour.
The goal this week is to make amends for his indifferent play in Savannah and his performance at the Memorial Tournament, despite all the distractions, is a good sign.
Last year at Shoal Creek, Couples shot 68-65 on the weekend to finish fourth behind Tom Lehman. A few weeks later, Couples, limited by injuries to only 11 Champions Tour events in 2012, won his second major championship on the Champions Tour at the Senior British Open at Turnberry. He closed out the Senior British impressively with rounds of 68-64-67.
The victory earned Couples a spot in next month’s British Open at Muirfield – that other Muirfield in Scotland - where he will again get a first-hand look at potential members of his Presidents Cup team.