Couples is ace in PGA deck

March 23, 1992|By Reid Hanley | Reid Hanley,Chicago Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Golfers in this country have been pining for the No. 1 spot since Tom Watson ruled the game in the 1970s and early '80s.

American prestige dipped as golfers from Spain, Germany, England, Australia and Wales were considered the best in the world.

As guys named Ian, Seve, Bernhard and Shark rose to the top, U.S. golf fans took to yelling "You're the man," each time an American golfer got anywhere near the lead in a PGA Tour event.

L Yesterday, they may have found their man, however reluctant.

His name is Fred.

Fred Couples became the first American to be ranked No. 1 in the world by the Sony Rankings, which were first used in 1986, with his impressive nine-shot victory over Gene Sauers in the Nestle Invitational.

It was the largest margin of victory on the PGA Tour since Jose Maria Olazabal won the 1990 World Series of Golf by 12 shots.

Couples led from start to finish and won with a 269 total, 19-under-par on Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club.

Sauers wound up at 278 after a 73. Five players tied for third, 12 shots behind.

Couples, who shot 70 yesterday, isn't so sure he's worthy of the No. 1 ranking but his rout of a strong international field on a top-rated course pushed Ian Woosnam out of the No. 1 spot he had held for almost a year.

"I don't think I should be the No. 1 player," Couples said after Saturday's course record-tying 9-under 63. "It's just a point system. Olazabal never won a major. Woosnam has been No. 1 and he's won one. I think you have to do more than what I'm doing."

Modesty aside, few have done what Couples is doing. In the last four weeks, second place has been his worst finish -- with a win at Los Angeles, second in the Doral Open, a playoff loss in he Honda Classic and the rout this weekend.

He has finished in the top six in 19 of his last 23 tournaments and has won five events and $2,362,975 in that stretch.

Couples won $180,000 here to increase his season-leading money total to $704,412.

Yesterday, he continued to make a joke out of the par-5s. He birdied two of the four par-5s to bring his total to 13-under-par on par-5s for the week. He's No. 1 on tour on par-5s and is 74-under for 125 par-5 holes.

"I'm learning that on the holes I know I can reach, I do my best to keep it in play rather than trying to hit it as far as I can," said Couples, who is 115-under-par for 32 rounds this year. "Sometimes, I smash a drive and have a 5-iron left. I know the next day if I swing as hard as I can and miss it, I don't have a chance. If there is a hole I can't reach, I usually hit an iron. It's course management."

He almost didn't play at Bay Hill this week. An off-hand "I'll see you at my tournament" by host Arnold Palmer convinced him to come here.

"I sure as heck couldn't say I wasn't going to play," Couples said.

The 32-year-old Palm Beach golfer went from the goat of the 1989 Ryder Cup team to one of the heroes of the victorious 1992 American Ryder Cup team. He now must be favored in each of golf's four majors and this week's Players Championship at Ponte Vedra, Fla.

"It's been five years or six years since I worked on my swing and got better," he said. "Because of that I played in a few tournaments under pressure. Even though I felt like I was swinging better, I didn't win tournaments that I thought I could. I went back and started to work on my short game and everything else. Now I seem to be a little better under pressure. I'm not great, but I don't think anyone is.

"I think I've just improved each year just from practicing and working on my swing."

Couples has often been called an underachiever. His failure to win his 1989 Ryder Cup match on the final hole, plus criticism from former British Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin, Tom Weiskopf and others seemed to spur him on. So did encouragement from Watson and Palmer.

"I've always kidded with him about how good he could be," Palmer said. "It was just a matter of putting his mind to it. He and I have had discussions from time to time about potential and how he could beat some of the top players."

This week he beat a field that had almost all the top players. Still, he doesn't think of himself as above the rest.

"As far as a superstar, I'm miles from there," said Couples. "There's a ton of good players. I'm just playing good right now. People are asking me that question, but there's Mark O'Meara, Paul Azinger, John Cook, Lanny Wadkins, there are 30 guys who are very good. It's just my time and I think I should take advantage of it."

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