Pain-free Couples returning to form, shoots 65 at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The back is feeling pretty good, and there is a nice bounce in his step, too. For one of the rare times in recent memory, Fred Couples is pain free, and six tournament appearances this year is proof. For a guy who teed it up just twice last year, playing two in a row is like a victory.

He is still far from that at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Couples opened the tournament Thursday with a 5-under-par 65 at the Bay Hill Club, the sweet swing on full display, putts dropping from everywhere, age (48) just a number.

"It's good to see Freddie up there," said Tiger Woods, who shot even-par 70 and is trying to win his fifth consecutive event on the PGA Tour. "He might have got a little shot of confidence now that he's [Presidents Cup] captain and that kind of freed things up. It's good to see him up there playing."

Couples, who two weeks ago was named U.S. Presidents Cup team captain for 2009, knows it could all come crashing down in an instant, his back woes never far from his mind -- leaving more than a few to wonder what could have been in a career that has seen him win 15 PGA Tour events, including the 1992 Masters.

Never big on reminiscing, Couples could not help but think back Friday to the 2006 Masters, his last great chance at victory, a win that would have made him the oldest champion -- by three months over Jack Nicklaus -- in tournament history.

"For me, that was a very tough one," said Couples, who ended up tied for third after a final-round duel with eventual winner Phil Mickelson. "I played a really, really good last round. I just couldn't get him when the nitty-gritty was the nitty-gritty.

"What happened on No. 14, you get over that … but you don't really get over it at Augusta. I mean, every time I walked up there last year, all four rounds, I just didn't even want to go near where that cup was. I hit such a great shot."

But unfortunately for Couples, the shot he expected to end up within tap-in range was 4 feet from the hole. Above the hole. And that is no gimme. Couples, who was two strokes behind Mickelson at the time, could have pulled within one with a birdie. Instead, he walked off the green two strokes behind.

"I didn't like anything about it," he recalled. "I surely showed that. Then I putted 4 or 5 feet by and missed it coming back … but that really was a downer."

It was his third three-putt of the round, all but ending his hopes of receiving another green jacket.

"Phil is a phenomenal player, and the circumstances of pounding it with him, trying to drive it with him, trying to hit the ball better … I think I might have been 1-up for quite a bit of the day and I just couldn't stay ahead of him, and that's what I needed to do," Couples said.

What Couples could have used was a putting performance like he had Thursday. Sure, the greens at the Bay Hill Club are not like those at Augusta National, but his effort at Palmer's tournament was pretty impressive. He needed just 23 putts and made all 16 of his attempts inside of 10 feet.

"The ability to play good golf is always there, no matter how old you are," said Tom Lehman, 49, who shot 66 to trail Couples by one. "It just seems it gets more difficult to do it consistently. That's always been my experience. I can play extremely well at times, but I don't play extremely well for extended periods like I used to."

Couples' situation is about more than just age. His back problems began in 1994, when he was leading heading into the final round of the Doral Open. While warming up on the driving range, he all but dropped to the ground. He suffered a tear in the outer layer of a disk in his lower back, and missed three months of action.

He did come back to win a tournament in August, but only five of his victories have come after that injury, his last in 2003.

All of which makes the prospect of Couples one day making it into the World Golf Hall of Fame a bit dicey. In truth, he has probably underachieved, given his talent and the flashes of brilliance he shows in offseason events, where he typically cleans up.

But how much of that is due to his injuries?

"You have to have numbers," Couples said. "I know that I'm certainly talked about, but do I need to be in there? I would like to be in there. Should I be in there? Probably not … but I'm close."

The back problems got so bad last year that Couples did not play an official tournament after the Masters, where he made the cut for the 23rd consecutive time. Every time he tried to practice, a setback would occur, and Couples wondered if he might be done with competitive golf.

But he found a new doctor, John Patterson, in Waco, Texas, who specializes in back treatment. Those sessions started in September, and Couples' back gradually started to feel better. Work with instructor Butch Harmon continues. And he's made four cuts in five previous starts, including a tie for eighth at the Buick Invitational.

Being in contention the first day of a tournament doesn't mean much, but it's a start -- especially for a guy who never knows if his next round of golf will be played in pain.

"I don't fear my back," he said. "My back will go out and when it does, I'll know. But as far as worrying about it, there's not much you can do."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.