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Archive for Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Couples savors fruit of labor

Tour veteran won Sunday for first time in five years

April 30, 2003

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Fred Couples rediscovered his place in golf.

The search started almost three months ago on the practice range at Pebble Beach, when he beat balls for six hours with Butch Harmon at his side.

"He's never done that in his life," Harmon said.

It ended late Sunday afternoon at the Houston Open when Couples was flawless over the final five holes and wound up with a four-stroke victory, his first on the PGA Tour in five years and 87 tournaments.

He raised his putter in triumph. He smiled to an adoring legion of fans. He slapped hands with Mark Calcavecchia as if they had just won the Shark Shootout.

What followed made it clear there was nothing silly about this victory.

The happy-go-lucky Couples was so overwhelmed that he broke down on national TV, tugged the visor over his eyes and walked away.

"I haven't won in five years. I haven't played really well in five years," Couples said. "I worked hard on my game, and it meshed. I have a lot of people to thank. That's what was going through my mind. Didn't get it out very well."

The message was clear.

Players in his age bracket (43) with far less ability have been winning their share of tournaments over the last five years.

Hal Sutton, who turned 45 Monday, has won six times since 1998, including a Tour Championship and an 18-hole duel with Tiger Woods at The Players Championship.

Fred Couples hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during the final
round of the Houston Open. Couples, who won Sunday at Redstone Golf
Club in Humble, Texas, is looking more like a player capable of
winning another major.

Fred Couples hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during the final round of the Houston Open. Couples, who won Sunday at Redstone Golf Club in Humble, Texas, is looking more like a player capable of winning another major.

Scott Hoch, 47, has won three times in the last three years. Mark O'Meara was 41 when he won two major championships. Bernard Langer, 45, qualified for his 10th Ryder Cup team and didn't lose a match at The Belfry.

"I have been practicing," Couples said. "I never really thought I'd win this quickly, but I thought I could win again if I practiced and played."

Couples was looking for the easy way out last year when he got behind a failed proposal to start a Major Champions Tour -- eight events on classic courses for players between the ages of 37 and 55 who had won a major.

"If I play like I did last year and keep deteriorating, and the PGA Tour is tough," Couples said at the time, "there's nowhere for me to play golf."

The solution wasn't a gimmick tour with guaranteed money.

The secret has always been in the dirt.

"He hadn't worked hard," Harmon said. "He had been fooling himself."

A desperate Couples hooked up with Harmon during the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Couples told him how terrible he had been swinging, and Harmon didn't believe it until they got to the practice range the next day.

Couples hit a few 9-irons.

"It's worse than you said," Harmon told him.

Harmon's time already is cut thin. He still works occasionally with Woods, and his clientele includes Calcavecchia, Darren Clarke, Adam Scott, Justin Leonard, Stewart Cink, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ben Crane.

His deal with Couples: You put in the time, I'll make the time.

Not only did they spend six hours on the range, Couples went to Carlsbad, Calif., during the Match Play Championship -- even though he wasn't playing -- and worked with Harmon at the TaylorMade test center.

"That's when I knew he was serious," Harmon said. "He's worked his tail off ever since."

They essentially shortened his swing, taking undue pressure off Couples' already sensitive back.

His victory in Houston moved him to No. 29 in the world ranking, which assures him of returning to the U.S. Open and likely will get him into the World Golf Championships for the first time in three years.

Harmon has written several books and made just as many videos. He has endorsement deals with Titleist and Buick, a TV gig with Sky Sport in Britain. He operates golf schools in Las Vegas and the Bahamas.

Harmon already was emotionally spent Sunday from a funeral service for his mother-in-law during the weekend. He got home and turned on the TV in time to watch the final three holes of the Houston Open, and the brief interview that followed.

Couples started to thank his wife, Thais, and Harmon when his voice cracked and his lips quivered, and before long, tears were flowing from Houston to Las Vegas.

"I had tears in my eyes when he holed out," Harmon said, "because I know how hard Freddie has worked."

The answer was there all along.

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