Sunday, December 21

Patience pays for Couples & Co.
By Ivan Maisel


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The Players Championship has been shown on ESPN and NBC. It should be on the History Channel.

 Fred Couples
Fred Couples may be showing a little gray, but he's playing this week like he did in his prime.

Jay Haas, the 49-year-old co-leader at 11-under, is playing as if it were 1982, when he won two tournaments.

Fred Couples, two strokes behind Haas and Padraig Harrington of Ireland, is playing as if it were 1992, when he won The Masters.

Craig Perks, tied for third with Couples and Davis Love III, is playing as if it were 2002, when he won the Players by chipping in for eagle on 16 and making a long birdie putt at 17. He did the same Saturday.

Corey Pavin, who thrived a decade ago by hitting it short and straight, and has spent the last seven years hitting it short and crooked, is 8-under. The 43-year-old Pavin, who had nine top-10 finishes in 1996, has had nine since then, none in the top three.

There are long hitters and short hitters in the hunt. When there are 23 golfers within six shots of the lead, every kind of hitter is in the hunt. Tiger Woods, who made birdie putts of 18 and 24 feet on his last two holes, climbed to 6-under, and has 11 golfers to beat.

"I am surprised I am this close to the lead," Woods said. "I have definitely fought my way around this golf course."

Fought the golf course, or yourself?

"Myself, certainly," he said.

One co-leader will know where he is on every shot.

"I look at the scoreboard all the time," Haas said. "I don't agree with not looking at the scoreboard. I don't understand that. We were laughing the other day -- could you imagine Bobby Knight not looking at the scoreboard until the last minute of the game? 'Should we hold it? Should we not? I don't know what the score is.'

"I like seeing my name up there. I've seen his name. I see 6-under par. I'm sure he's not too scared by me being up there, but what can you do? There's no defense in golf."

The one characteristic the contenders seem to share is patience. The quickest way to knock yourself out of contention on the Stadium Course is to aim at the pins. Even Harrington, a relative youngster at 31, spoke of how he has learned from his experiences of playing in the final group on Saturday last year at both the U.S. and British Opens.

"I tend to gradually grow into things and learn from things," Harrington said after his third-round 70. "I'm not one of these guys who just turns up and gets it right the first time."

The 43-year-old Couples, whose easygoing nature has never been confused with impatience, has revived his game by -- and here's a novel approach -- practicing. He's working hard again, thanks to a gentle suggestion by his wife, Thais, toward the no-bull teaching of Butch Harmon.

"She said this a year ago," Couples said, sitting in front of his locker on the second floor of the locker room, the area reserved for past champions. "I said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll do it.'"

He never did. Couples has worked with the teaching pro Paul Marchand for 15 years. However, now that he lives in Santa Barbara, getting to Marchand in Houston proved difficult. Harmon is in Las Vegas.

Thais suggested it again this winter. Well, suggested may not be the right verb.

"It's like (when I say to her), 'You're going to that spa and you're going to get your nails done whether you want to or not,'" Couples said. "She did it to me."

Harmon can often be seen on the range, tweaking Tiger Woods here, helping Justin Leonard there. Couples said he didn't want tweaks. Though he finished tied for 13th in San Diego, he hated how he played. He called Harmon afterward to discuss their meeting.

"It's not pretty," Couples told him.

"Awww," Harmon said. "How bad can it be? You just shot four good rounds."

On the range the next day at Pebble Beach, Harmon took one look at Couples hitting a 9-iron and said, "Wow, you aren't kidding." They worked for six hours.

Couples said he had developed an outside-in swing, and Harmon has worked with him to eliminate it. They have met three times but Couples canceled a session last week at Bay Hill because his back, which has bothered him throughout his 23 years on Tour, went out. Before the tournament, he said, "I told Thais I don't know what I'm going to shoot."

He has made 18 birdies and an eagle in 54 holes.

"Every time I have not hit a good shot, I've bounced right back," he said.

They have battled bad backs and doubt, slumps and boredom, and here they are. There is silver in Couples' dark hair, though his face remains unlined. He is enjoying himself this week. He is a houseguest this week of David Duval, less than two miles from the course.

He hung out in Duval's kitchen and den Saturday morning, sprawled on the couch watching SportsCenter, waiting for the second round to conclude so that they could set tee times.

Couples is back in his element, as are Haas and Pavin. Any of them would be the oldest winner ever of the Players. They may not make the History Channel. They would much rather make history.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.






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