I watched Freddie Couples win the Shell Houston Open this weekend. It was a big moment for him and a big pleasure for me to see it. I've been watching Freddie "Boom Boom" Couples for as long as I can remember enjoying televised golf. I realize a lot of fun gets poked at those who enjoy golf on TV, but, as the Frenchman said when he smiled broadly after licking the freshly spilled Dijon mustard off of the German boot, "It's an acquired taste."
In this era of NBA stars who can easily tally their total three-pointers to date by dividing the number of their yard babies by their felony convictions (using a calculator, of course), and in this era of MLB players who get regular beanings by cell phones and beer bottles because of their contributions to the inflated ticket prices paid by the working class folks just to see them lollygag around in a lopsided game, it is refreshing (at least to me) to see these guys on the PGA Tour who are self-employed journeymen. They are working for themselves, by themselves, each week in order to feed their families and achieve whatever success the fickle game of golf can afford them. They are playing a game which has a code of honor so embedded in it that no one even considers the possibility of bending the slightest sacred rule of the game, whether anyone is watching or not. It's very true that the folks you trust most in this short life are the ones who do the right thing when they know full well that no one is watching.
Anyway, after Freddie double-bogied number 7 on the last day in Houston last weekend, he birdied 4 out of the last six holes and won comfortably. Well, it was comfortable until he had to say something to the on-course announcer. It started out well enough as Freddie recounted how he was proud to be the first guy who graduated from the University of Houston to win the Houston Open, but then the sizzle of what had just happened begin to seer into his supposedly relaxed brow. He thanked his new wife and his new coach, Butch Harmon, and before he could finish that sentence, he broke down and started blubbering like a baby. He couldn't say another word and the on-course announcer was at a loss as to how to finish his interview. So he just said, "OK, Freddie. I know you've got to go sign your scorecard now." The whole uncomfortable time, Freddie was standing there, having just won his 15th professional golf tournament at the ripe age of 43, with his visor down over his face and acting, for all the money and fame in the world, just like a lost child at the fair. His first win was in 1983, and this was the first time he'd won in 5 years. Most folks had given up on him ever winning again, at least not until he turned 50 and crossed over to that Fair Land of Nod which aging golfers call the Senior Tour. Well, they're calling it the Champions Tour now, but it'll always be the "Senior" Tour in my mind.
Just five years earlier, in 1998, Freddie had the Masters in his hip pocket. He either led or shared the lead for the first 66 holes of the tournament. He posted a double bogey on the 13th hole in the final round, and that dropped him out of the lead for the first time during the entire tournament. He eagled the 15th hole and that got him to within one shot of the lead, but that was as close as he got. He wound up shooting 69-70-71-70 (280) and finished tied for second. Another old guy, Mark O'Meara, won the Green Jacket that year. Back in 1992, Freddie had shot 275 for his only win at Augusta. So far.
In 19 trips to Augusta National, Freddie has never missed the cut. When he won his one and only Green Jacket in 1992, this was when he was Tiger Woods hot. During that stretch, he won three tournaments and finished second twice in six starts. In six straight professional golf tournaments, he either won or got beat by one guy five out of six times. That's a fairly amazing feat. That's when you have the entire field scared to death of you, just like they are now each time Tiger tees it up.
Freddie was married for several years to a trophy wife, Deborah. She had been a tennis star at the University of Houston who tried to hide the fact that she was quite a bit older than Freddie. She once said that the thing Freddie feared the most was the loss of his peace of mind. I'm guessing that her spending habits with his money and her Hollywood lifestyle might have had a lot to do with the loss of some of that peace. Deborah was a flashy horse-headed airplane blonde who craved the spotlight far more than her low-key hubby. They always appeared such a mismatch. The relationship reached its nadir at the '92 British Open. Deborah went to Muirfield (in Scotland) alone, arriving a day before the tournament. Freddie missed the cut and immediately left for home -- without his wife. That night she was dancing on a tabletop in a North Berwick pub when Billy Ray Brown, a Tour player and a friend of Freddie's, intervened. The divorce was finalized in 1993 and it caused the laid-back Freddie a lot of visible grief. According to the Los Angeles City Coroner's office, on May 26, 2001, Deborah jumped to her death from the roof of the Kresge Chapel of the Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. The coroner's office ruled it a suicide.
You could see the pain in his face during all that time. He had faced years of suffering lower back pain in the 1990s. The marital disbliss and the backaches pretty much took Boom Boom (a nickname gained from his ability to hit the ball as far or farther than anyone else in his day) out of the golfing picture for a while, and many folks wondered if he'd wind up joining his college roommate, Jim Nantz, in the CBS broadcast booth or, as I said before, just barcolounging it and resting up for the Senior Tour. He tried his hand in the broadcasting booth a couple of times, and most folks agreed that he was pretty good at it.
He married his new wife, Thais, in 1998. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, the same year Couples' father, Tom, died. Thais Couples beat the disease and they have two young children (hers) who seem to have naturally taken to the idea of Freddie as Daddy. Couples' mother, Violet, had died on Mother's Day in 1994, just a few weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
Back at the University of Houston in 1977, in their dorm room, Jim Nantz would make Couples sit down and share in an imaginary moment in the Butler Cabin, just the TV personality and the high-profile golfer in the making, doing dry runs of the ultimate Masters moment. Years later, in 1992, when they were both inside the Butler Cabin for real on a given Sunday, Freddie couldn't look at his longtime friend. Tears were automatic if he did, right there in front of millions of viewers. "He spent most of that time in Butler Cabin shielding his eyes," Nantz said.
Nantz was there again last weekend when Freddie couldn't hold it in again. He just said something to the effect of, "It's good for folks to see what lies beneath that calm exterior." And that's what has always attracted Freddie's fans to him, I suppose. It's the fact that his golf swing is so perfectly calm and he has the demeanor to match. You can hardly tell what is going on in his mind as he wanders the greenfields of the Tour each week. You would almost assume he didn't care what happened. And that's the mistake that Nance wanted to point out when Freddie turned into the 5-year old that hides inside of all of us.
It's the combination of his easy-going golf swing matched with his easy-going personality that always caught my attention. A good comparison of younger players would be Ernie Els. You can hardly tell how they are doing on any given weekend by their demeanor. Regardless, the swings never change much. A fluid, easy takeaway and a solid planting of the feet as the club does its work and winds up in a lazy arc across their backs. I've never seen either one of them wind up off balance after a golf shot.
A lot of Freddie's success at Houston this past weekend was his proficiency with this new "belly putter" he's using. He anchors the butt end of the grip in his sternum and it seems to have helped him quite a bit. He didn't miss many during those four days and he made some that were just ridiculous. There are other factors that have helped him climb back up the Money List recently. He gets up and down out of the sand 67% of the time. Think about that. Most golfers, even good golfers, don't two-putt or better that often. It really helps you with course management if you have the assurance that if you hit it in a greenside bunker, two out of three times you'll do no worse than your competitor who has hit the green and two-putts. He hits 71% of the greens in regulation. So, if most of the ones which don't hit the green in regulation wind up in the bunker, and you get 2/3 of those up and in, you will win some golf tournaments.
Freddie has some gray hairs creeping in and a few lines in his face that weren't there when I began watching him, but he still looks like a kid. Especially when he's bawling his eyes out. I can't wait to see him win the Masters again at age 46, just like Jack did in '86. That'll be a moment when I bet even the oh-so-stoic Jim Nantz will be crying right along with his boy.