By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Fred Couples isn't used to ultra-early tee times on the Champions Tour, and a year ago at the Northern Trust Open, he didn't respond very well to the corresponding wake-up call.
Couples had opened with a solid 70 that left him just four strokes off the pace. But his 53-year-old body didn't handle that 7:09 a.m. tee time and the 76 Couples shot -- a round "that felt like 100," he said -- resulted in just his third missed cut in 30 starts at his beloved Riviera.
With a 7:22 a.m. date on Thursday, Couples said he planned to get up a lot earlier and have a different routine. Whatever he did worked, too, after Couples fired a 68 that left him in the thick of things again.
"I got it out of the system last year," Couples said of the 76 that was his second-highest score in 111 rounds.
The soon-to-be World Golf Hall of Famer will play at 12:12 p.m. PT (3:12 p.m. ET) on Friday. And with any luck the man who has two top-10 finishes in his last four starts at Riviera will get to sleep in even later on the weekend.
Couples, who started on the back nine, said on Wednesday that when he's playing well he feels like he can walk around Riviera and shoot par or close to it every time. And with the exception of a wedge he dumped into a bunker at No. 11 -- "I just wasn't ready to clip a little shot in there at 7:30 in the morning," he acknowledged -- Couples was in total control in the first round.
"From then on I played very, very well," he said. "Like I said, you've got to go out and play well here. I know there's going to be some good scores. It's irrelevant what everyone else is shooting, but I just want to play well and keep staying under par."
Couples, who hit nine fairways and 12 greens in regulation, joked about how he was hitting 6-irons when his playing partners were hitting two clubs less. But he held his own with Lee Westwood, who also shot 68, and beat Bubba Watson by nine.
"I can figure my way out around this course," Couples said.
And make no mistake, Couples' driver was working. He averaged 293.6 yards off the tee and had four drives in excess of 300 -- including one of 314 that went seven yards further than either of his playing partners and produced a birdie at the par-5 17th.
"I smoked that, yeah," Couples said. "That was good. I knocked it up pin high in two and got it up and down. I did drive it. If you watched yesterday, I was being out driven by my amateur team. And then today, I just felt a little rhythm and started driving it a little firmer and solider, and the ball was going well and I just kept swinging hard."