There's something about The Masters and Augusta National that brings out the best in Fred Couples. At 51 years old, Couples has recaptured the magic again at The Masters, plodding along to work his way up the leaderboard after 36 holes with two solid rounds to start the tournament. A balky back forced Couples to scale back his PGA Tour appearances recently, opting instead to play 54-hole tournaments on the Champions Tour. But his lifetime exemption to The Masters, by virtue of his 1992 win, has him coming back for more each year as he takes on the challenge of one of golf's toughest courses.
Couples struggled in 2008 and 2009 at Augusta, missing the cut each time as he pushed 50 and his form began to fade. He hadn't shot under par in a round since the final round of the 2007 Masters, when he shot a 1-under 71 in the final round after a dismal three days to salvage a 13-over finish. It looked as though Augusta had beaten Couples and his best days were well behind him.
But in 2010, Couples captured the headlines again, firing a first round 66 at the ripe-old age of 50. Couples made his return to the leaderboard at Augusta, reinvigorated and playing like the Fred Couples of old, at least to start the tournament. He faded, hardly a surprise all things considered, but still finished in sixth place, with only a second round 75 holding him back.
Couples is back again this year, piecing together two solid rounds -- a first round 71 and second round 68 -- to enter the weekend right in the thick of things. At 5-under, he's just five shots back of leader Rory McIlroy, a 21-year-old who was just two years old when Couples won The Masters in 1992. On Saturday, he'll share his round with Rickie Fowler, another young face on the PGA Tour at 22, more than half the Seattle native's age. Yes, the elder statesman still has a few tricks in his bag, especially at Augusta National.
There's something endearing about watching Couples play the game. He navigates the course as if he's out for a Sunday stroll, walking along with a pep in his step and without a care in the world. His swing is effortless, yet the ball jumps off his club as he regularly bombs drives out beyond those of competitors decades younger than him. He's always been a likable character, playing with a smile on his face and an admirable attitude in a sport that can bring out the worst at times.
It's a joy to watch Couples play at The Masters, a course held in high regard by so many. He has an affinity for the course, and even with just one win, it's as though he's at one with Augusta National at times. He knows as well as anyone where to place the ball off the tee and on the green, which way putts will move and the places to avoid at all costs. His body may not cooperate at times, but when he's on, he can still compete with the best of them.
Nobody knows whether Couples will fade over the weekend, or whether his back will hold up over the final two rounds. He plays in a severe amount of pain, and walking the undulating terrain at Augusta takes its toll, especially on a body that isn't getting any younger. Yet watching him, you'd never know as he grins and bears it, looking as though he's just happy to be playing on America's finest course with some of the best golfers in the world.
It's Couples attitude and feel-good story that makes him easy to root for, especially at 51 and especially at The Masters. Watch him go to work over the weekend as he tries to hang on and sneak into the discussion at Augusta with the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. You won't regret it.