Choices for Couples: Win big and often

JOHN EISENBERG

April 10, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Lee Trevino, who hustled nickels long before he became a champion, once said that the only real pressure in golf was looking at a $20 putt with $10 in your pocket.

Fred Couples isn't quite to that point, but when he told reporters the other day that he had started having migraine headaches, no one had to ask why.

All the golfers on tour are under various pressures to produce. Couples makes them look like pikers.

The other golfers want to win. Hope to win. Couples has no choice.

He has to win.

"I have a lot of pressure on myself," the defending Masters champ said the other day, "and just a lot of things going on."

Things.

Such as owing his soon-to-be-ex-wife some $52,000 a month, by order of a divorce court judge.

Just a guess, but you'd probably have migraines, too.

Couples was the golfer with the classic looks and the classic swing and the future everyone wanted, but suddenly his life resembles a Rodney Dangerfield joke. Man goes out to get divorced one day. Comes home with a ball and chain around his leg. Make that a medicine ball and chain.

He surely never figured to wind up in such dutch when his childless, 11-year marriage fell apart and went to court last November. Divorce is far from uncommon on the movable feast that is the golf tour. The old locker-room joke is that it's a good day if your under-par total exceeds your ex-wife total. But Couples' divorce has turned into a triple-bogey.

His wife, Deborah, is a polo-playing socialite who asked the judge for $168,000 a month to get her through the three remaining months of polo season, then $55,000 a month after that. Court records in Palm Beach, Fla., showed that her polo expenses rose from $10,000 in 1988 to almost $300,000 last year.

Couples' attorney suggested that $17,500 was a reasonable amount of monthly support. The judge basically ruled for Deborah, awarding her three times the amount Couples had offered.

It was all such a splashy business that courtroom highlights made the local news and cable networks. Deborah appeared on the tabloid TV show "Hard Copy" last month, saying she missed Fred "a lot." What a country.

Anyway, the point is that Couples suddenly has no room in his game for even a minor slump. He has no margin for error. If he doesn't squeeze from the tour the $624,000 a year he needs to satisfy the judge, well, let's just say the court doesn't tolerate excuses about putting slumps.

He earned $1.3 million last year, more than enough, but admits it probably was his career year. "I may never play like that again," he said. In the three years before that, he averaged a more realistic $747,000. If he wins that much this year, Deborah would get some 84 percent.

(That, incidentally, would leave Deborah ranked 22nd on the tour earnings list, according to 1992 figures. Tour officials have not decided whether to give her the automatic qualifying exemption that goes with such a high finish.)

The divorce isn't final yet, but, at this point, the circumstances don't figure to change much. So far, Couples is handling the ever-present specter of the judge reasonably well. He won a tournament in March and sits fourth on the tour earnings list at $375,000, putting him more than halfway home. He is 2-under-par after two rounds of the Masters, very much in the running. He is, of course, one of the world's best golfers.

But the toll of the must-win pressure is apparent. He has twice had mid-round migraines in the past month. ("Beats back trouble," he said.) While most of his competitors were tuning up for the Masters last week in New Orleans, he took the week off, saying he was "mentally spent."

In March, he said: "My emotions go in and out like the tide. I think about [the divorce] all the time on the course."

His interviews often take on that squishy tone these days. A laid-back sort who almost seems to prefer obscurity, Couples suddenly is the tour's unofficial open book, unable to take a swing without being psychoanalyzed.

"Fred," a reporter asked the other day, "do you have a better idea now of who you are and what you want to be?"

Couples is not into introspection, but he played the good sport and offered an answer. ("I'm a lot tougher than people think and not as tough as a lot of people want me to be.") Of course, that's not the issue with him now. The issue is not what he wants to be. The issue is what he has to be.

Plenty good.

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