Masterful start for Fred Couples
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- What is it about Fred Couples and the Masters? The guy drives down Magnolia Lane and his birth certificate shifts into reverse. His bad back becomes Cirque du Soleil loose. The Augusta National scoreboards chant his name.
Couples' wardrobe includes a green jacket he won here in 1992. It made sense back then. But it's hard to figure out how 20 years later, at the Senior Tour age of 52, Boom Boom is back back.
Couples not only shot the low round of Friday (a 5-under-par 67), but he's tied with Jason Dufner for the 36-hole lead. This is slightly less of a Masters miracle than chairman Billy Payne inviting Lady Gaga to become the club's first female member.
"I don't feel old on this course just yet," said Couples, who played his first tournament here in 1983 -- and 27 more since then.
Augusta National is Couples' age-reversal system. It remains his favorite place in the world. Second place is his couch.
Couples knows this course like Yo-Yo Ma knows cello strings. This was his 106th tournament round here and at least his 150th total. He's on a first-name basis with all the azaleas.
He began the day in green numbers, at even par and tied for 29th. He ended it in the red and staring down at almost the entire field. There's no use trying to explain the score because not even Couples has a fully functional reason.
"Very shocking and it was a great day," said Couples, adding, "For me to be a part of it is truly amazing."
Amazing, but not unprecedented. In 2010, Couples was the first-round leader and finished sixth. Last year he started the final round in ninth place.
Couples can't remember a thing about those rounds. He's so clueless that he asked, "Who won two years ago?"
Nobody special, just one of your best buds, Phil Mickelson.
This course and Couples have more than a history together; they have a romance together. No player, including the great Jack Nicklaus, has a better Masters career scoring average than Couples. He now has the Masters distinction of becoming the oldest 36-hole leader/co-leader.
"I don't feel too much stress," said Couples. "Now obviously there's stress out there. I'm not -- what I'm getting at is when you're playing here, I'm not going to let too many things bother me. It's so beautiful. You can't say it's your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday."
Couples didn't break a club or, as Tiger Woods did during the second round, kick a club, either. Couples strolled through his 18 holes with the carefree look of someone enjoying every moment. Can you blame him?
After 28 Masters, Couples can read Augusta National's cruel, complicated greens as if they're in 64-point type. He understands how and when to challenge this course. And he still hits it long enough off the tee that the length of this place doesn't neuter his chances.
"He's just cool," said Rory McIlroy, 22, who sits a stroke behind Couples on the leaderboard. "I hope that I'm that cool when I'm 52, or whatever he is. Yeah, he's just a cool guy."
"Amazing," said Sergio Garcia, also at 4 under. "He always manages to do it."
It's more than good. There's a chance it could be Verne-Lundquist-"Yes, sir!" memorable by the end of Sunday.
A victory by Couples would make him the first 50-or-older player to win a major. Jack was 46 when he won the 18th and final major of his career here. The roars were so loud that you needed eardrum replacement.
Couples will get the same kind of treatment. The patrons adore him. They cheered for him Friday. They'll sprain their vocal cords yelling for him Saturday.
So far, his longtime troublesome back has taken the week off. Couples still did his usual assortment of on-course stretching exercises, but it was more out of habit than anything else. He said he felt wonderful -- and his scorecard proved it.
He birdied Nos. 3 and 4, bogeyed the par-3 sixth, then birdied three in a row. Then he had an eagle putt on the par-5 15th, but left with a birdie. A birdie at the par-3 16th pushed him to 5 under.
A little while later, he left the 18th green to a standing ovation. Galleries love him. TV producers love him. Metamucil loves him.
"Can I win?" he said. "Yeah, I believe I can."
I'd like to believe it. So would his longtime former caddie, Joe LaCava, who is now on Tiger's bag.
"I'd like to see it," said LaCava, as he hopped on a golf cart for a post-round practice range session with Woods. "I hope he wins the thing if we can't. Right? Why not?"
Why not? Well, there's about 52 reasons. Couples wakes up Saturday and his back acts twice its age ... He doesn't shoot in the red again ... McIlroy goes way low ... And so on and so on.
There's a lot of work to be done between now and when someone gets a green jacket in Butler Cabin. And if Couples is that someone, he promises he would never play again.
"It would be a walk-off," he said. "I am dead serious when I say that. What a way to go."
Wait? He'll never, ever play another tournament? That's how much it would mean to him?
Couples thought about it for a moment.
"I'll play here," he said. "I'll play here."
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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