AUGUSTA, GA — AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Raymond Floyd watched on television in the Augusta National clubhouse yesterday as Fred Couples tried to protect a two-stroke lead on the final holes of the last round of the Masters. Floyd was in second place, the only golfer who would benefit if Couples faltered.
"But I was pulling for him," Floyd said. "Even though it was to my detriment, I wanted him to win. Of course I did."
Of course. Floyd had done too much to help Couples these last few years, help him begin realizing his enormous potential. Couples hasbeen Floyd's project, in a sense, and neither golfer wanted to see the project collapse.
"I knew that the last thing he wanted to see [was] for me to go bogey-bogey and send us to a playoff," Couples said. "I was with him there. Ididn't want to see it, either."
He didn't. Couples parred the last four holes to win the tournament by two strokes on a warm, sunny afternoon. And, according to the runner-up, a star was born.
"Fred has the talent to win this tournament as many times as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus," Floyd said. "He's become a great player. The only plateau left for him was to win a major title. Now that he has, I think you'll see him go on from here and win many majors. He has that much talent."
He won with a final-round 70 marked by errant driving and clutch putting, finishing at 13-under-par, the lowest championship total since 1980. Floyd, 49, fell short in his attempt to become the oldest player to win any major title.
Corey Pavin shot a final-round 67 to finish third, three shots back. The top five places were occupied by Americans for the first time since 1984. Couples' win broke a four-year Masters winning streak by players from the United Kingdom.
"I can't say I played that well," Couples said. "But after I made the birdie putt on 14, I really felt relaxed. You think so long about having the lead on the back nine of the Masters on Sunday. I felt pretty good."
It's safe to say Couples, 32, wouldn't have been so calm a few years ago. Long recognized as one of the game's pure talents, he had a casual, uncompetitive attitude that kept him from becoming one of the top players.
But he has emerged as the best player in the world this year by far, with three tournament wins now and 22 consecutive subpar rounds at one point. Floyd has played a prominent role in Couples' growth.
Floyd, as Ryder Cup captain, counseled Couples after Couples' failure at a key moment in the 1989 Ryder Cup. Then Floyd asked to be paired with Couples at a two-man exhibition tournament staged by Greg Norman in 1990.
"Fred didn't handle his game very well at that point," said Floyd, winner of a Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. Open. "He made a lot of mental errors. We played together that week, and it was like I was his second caddy. I made him hit certain shots."
Said Couples: "He taught me a lot. What I really remember was him saying, basically, 'When you get a lead, go get a bigger lead.' "
For Floyd, it was just part of the game's natural history to help Couples improve. When Floyd was young, he'd been similarly helped by a veteran Arnold Palmer.
"Arnold would flat out get on me," Floyd said. "He told me I wasn't realizing my potential, and tried to get me to do it. We were closer than Freddie and I are. But Freddie and I
have worked a lot."
It showed yesterday. Floyd is one of the game's great front-runners, terrific with a lead, and Couples was a carbon copy after he emerged from a four-way tie halfway through the round. Third-round leader Craig Parry was on his way to a 78. Ian Baker-Finch was erratic. Long shot Ted Schulz couldn't stand the pressure.
Couples started slowly, missing the fairway badly with his first two drives, but then he righted himself and broke from the pack with birdie putts on the eighth and ninth holes, the first 18 feet and the second 20 feet. Suddenly, he had a two-stroke lead.
The key moment for him came on the par-3 12th, when he hit a ball that seemed headed for the water but stopped on the bank six inches from disaster.
"The biggest break I've ever gotten in my life," he said.
Floyd tried putting on a charge, chipping in for a birdie on the 14th, but it was not meant to be. His birdie putts on the 15th and 16th stopped on the lip of the cup.
"I thought they both were in," he said. "What can you do?"
You can watch Couples handle the back-nine pressure as well as any golfer in years. He birdied the 14th after a terrific approach shot, then parred the 15th after wrapping his approach shot around a tree.
The matter was decided when he made a 5-foot par putt on the 17th, sending him to the 18th with a two-stroke lead.
"That was a great putt on 17," Floyd said. "I know the kind of pressure he was under on that putt."
After Couples tapped in for a par on the 18th and raised his hands in victory, he embraced Floyd as he made his way to the scorer's tent.
"He told me he was happy for me," Couples said.