In former champion Couples, Kemper has a link to the past

1983 victor is chasing respectable showing more than win this time


May 29, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC - In another life, Fred Couples was the No. 1 player in the world. At another course, a couple of miles down the road from the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Couples won the Kemper Open.

This week, Couples will try to recapture some of the magic that he has lost in the intervening years. Not that he expects to do anything crazy - like win his first tournament in four years or even be in the hunt come Sunday.

At 42, Couples is merely hoping to be respectable.

"I can't tell you I'm going to play great, because I haven't in a long time," Couples said yesterday. "I've seen signs this year that things are getting better, not so many 50th or 60th finishes like last year."

Last year was the low point of his career. Couples made the cut in 14 of the 19 events in which he played, but he didn't have a Top 10 finish for the first time as a pro. He ranked 131st on the money list, the lowest he had ever finished in 21 years on the PGA Tour.

This season started with a little more promise, with a tie for ninth in Los Angeles in February giving Couples some hope of turning it around. But after taking five weeks off after the Masters, Couples shot 80 in the opening round of last week's Memorial Tournament.

"It was a waste of time, really," said Couples, who missed the cut there after shooting a second-round 71.

He is a decade removed from his lone major championship victory at the 1992 Masters and the No. 1 ranking he held for 16 weeks that year. It is nearly two decades since he won his first tour title in the 1983 Kemper at Congressional County Club in Bethesda. Yet Couples will be one of the big draws here this week.

This year's Kemper Insurance Open might have the feel of the Major Champions Tour of over-40 players Couples was trying to sell earlier this year. Two-time British Open champion Greg Norman is also in the field, as are former Masters winner Larry Mize and 1998 Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Meara.

Couples is only a shell of the player everyone called "Boom Boom." While the recurring back problems that caused him to reduce his schedule for several years have cleared up, he is not physically able to put in the practice time he needs to improve. The swing is still smooth; the results often are not.

"What keeps me going in a roundabout way is that it would be a great thing to play well," said Couples. "I took it for granted a long time ago that I was going to play well. For the longest time, I got better at something every year. Now, I'm getting worse at something every year."

Couples sees other players his age - or older - still competing and winning. He can see himself doing what Nick Price, 45, did in winning at Colonial or what John Cook, 44, did in being in contention down the stretch at Memorial.

"It won't be where I win two or three or four more times," said Couples, who has won 14 PGA Tour events and five other tournaments internationally. "It might be a fluke thing if I win."

It certainly would be this week, considering that Couples missed the cut the past two times he played here (in 1995 and 1997) and has finished no higher than a tie for 16th since the tournament moved from Congressional in 1987.

"I think it's a pretty demanding course," Couples said of Avenel, which has taken its share of heat over the years but is now a generally respected venue. "A lot of times when I was playing well, I wasn't really prepared when I came here. It's tough to play a course when you're really not playing that well."

Or that often. When he went to the Memorial Tournament last week, Couples had played just three times during his hiatus at home in California with his wife, Thais, and their two children, 9-year-old Oliver and 11-year-old GiGi.

Couples has fond memories from that first victory at Kemper. It came after Couples survived a final-round 77 to win a four-way playoff with a birdie on the second extra hole. Nearly as memorable was his ex-wife Deborah's running on the green in high heels to hug the champion.

"What a wild, wild long day," he recalled.

In another life.

At another course.

NOTES: There will be a reunion of sorts this week when Peter Jacobsen uses Mike "Fluff" Cowan to caddy for him. Cowan, who caddies for Memorial Tournament champion Jim Furyk, worked for Jacobsen before taking over for a promising player named Tiger Woods. ... PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will be here today to honor longtime CBS analyst Ken Venturi, who will work his last regular event this week. ... Chang Hong (Bethesda) shot 65, John Curley (Osterville, Mass.) 66, James Sullivan (Wyndmor, Pa.) 66 and Michael Pearson (Alpharetta, Ga.) 67 in yesterday's Kemper qualifier at Little Bennett Golf Club in Clarksburg.

Kemper Open at a glance

When: Pro-am today; 72-hole tournament tomorrow through Sunday.

Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac.

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