Couples opts for one more tournament appearance at Riviera

BOCA RATON, FL. – Fred Couples, eight months away from his 60th birthday, returns to the PGA Tour this week. He wangled a spot in the Genesis Open thanks to a sponsor’s exemption, but he’s going with some reservations.

“I probably should go to Naples (the Chubb Classic in Naples, FL., on PGA Tour Champions),’’ said Couples. “Sounds like bragging, but I won Naples a couples times (2010 and 2017) and still want to play in L.A. Riviera is one of my favorite events.’’

Couples was the champion of Los Angeles’ longstanding PGA Tour stop twice, in 1990 and 1992, and was the runner-up (or tied for second) three times in the 1990s so it’s understandable why he’d like to go back to that tournament one more time.

With Couples, though, you never know where or when he’ll show up to play. That’s just the way it is.

No question his career is winding down, but Couples is still competitive with the younger guys. Last October, on the same week that he turned 59, he went back to the PGA Tour for the Safeway Classic in Napa, Calif. That week he said that tournament would be “my last PGA Tour event besides Augusta (the Masters).’’

Couples tied for 41st that week, dropping 26 places after shooting a 75 in the final round), and that came after a surprise showing in the Masters. In 2017 he skipped the site of his biggest victory (the 1992 Masters) because of back problems were too painful.

“I physically couldn’t move,’’ he said, between practice swings at the Oasis Championship. “Last year I went basically wearing a back brace. I just didn’t want to miss the Masters again, and I made the cut. It felt like I had won the tournament just by making the cut.’’

He started 2019 with two events on PGA Tour Champions – a tie for fifth in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii and a tie for eighth in the Oasis Championship in Florida. He was a late entry for the first full field event of the Champions season in Boca Raton in part because his back was feeling good. That’s obviously not always been the case.

“The process is just trying to figure it out,’’ said Couples. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I could play great one day, get in the car and drive to the hotel and get out and something could go wrong with my back. Or I can hit a driver as hard as I can and something could happen there. There’s no rhyme or reason, but I really feel pretty good at the moment and I’m planning on playing a little more this year. Twelve, fourteen events — that’s my goal.’’

He won’t predict where he’ll play after Riviera, however.

“I look at the schedule at the beginning of the year, and it’s a pipe dream,’’ he said. “I mark like 16 tournaments. I skip majors on our (Champions) tour because I don’t really feel like I should go play in them. That’s not the greatest thing, either.’’

To play, or not to play, in major championships? Being Fred Couples isn’t as easy as his classic swing looks, but he’s found a scheduling formula that has worked – at least to some extent – for almost three decades.

“I know the year. I was 32 years old when it started happening,’’ said Couples. “It was never really horrible except for the first time it happened. I was out for like seven months and thought, `Am I going to be able to play?’’’

Play again, he did, and Couples has built a resume that shows 13 PGA Tour wins (the last at Houston in 2003) and 13 Champions Tour titles (the last at the American Family Insurance Championship in 2017).

“Since I came back I’ve taken it easy because all my buddies are young kids,’’ said Couples. “I tell them, don’t worry about missing a cut or having two bad months of golf. This isn’t a sprint. This is a marathon. That’s how I really wanted to treat it. Knock on wood, I’ve lasted.’’