By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
Age is hardly the barrier it once was in golf. Mark O'Meara won two major championships the year after his 40th birthday, and we'd think nothing of it if Nick Price won a tournament this year. Hal Sutton, who turns 43 this weekend, is coming off a victory at the Houston Open.
So what's up with Fred Couples? He still makes hitting a golf ball 300 yards appear as simple as a leisurely stroll in the park. To watch him, you'd think the game was easy, as effortless as it seems to him.
But at age 41, Couples has not won a tournament since 1998. He plays more rounds over par than under. He shot 68 in the first round at Houston last week, then retreated to his usual spot on the scoreboard.
"It's painful to play like this," said Couples, the No. 1 player in the world a decade ago. "I didn't win last year. I haven't won this year. It's hard mentally to come out and wonder if you're going to win instead of knowing you really have a chance. I don't want to get to the point where I come here or any tournament just to be here. That's not how I want to do it."
Couples has no top 20 finishes this year, and was in the top 10 just five times last year, when his best tournament was a tie for fifth.
The rap against Couples for years was that he didn't care, although that view probably had more to do with the way he went about his business with such a lack of intensity. He has not played as many as 20 PGA Tour events since leading the money list in 1992.
And Couples did endure myriad personal problems in the late 1990s, including the death of his parents and a back injury. Still, for a man of his abilities, more is expected.
"I think I'm just above mediocre right now," said Couples, who has 14 career PGA Tour victories, including the 1992 Masters. "It would be a miracle for me to win a tournament right now. But as they say, anything can happen. ... (But) put me with David Duval on Sunday, and I'm going to look like a high school player."
Couples should take heart when he sees what Sutton recently has accomplished. Sutton has endured his share of injuries, too, yet managed to win his sixth tour event since turning 40. Tom Kite and Greg Norman also won six events after 40, as did Ben Hogan. Sam Snead holds the record with 17.
MORE SUTTON: Sutton moved to sixth in the Ryder Cup standings with his victory at the Houston Open and is all but assured of a place on the team that will take on the Europeans this September in England.
Even if he fell outside the top 10 in the points standings, Sutton would have to be considered a strong choice for one of Curtis Strange's captain's selections. "I want to make the Ryder Cup team bad. But I don't want to make it that way," Sutton said, meaning he wants to earn his spot.
Sutton played on the victorious 1999 team but has not played on a Ryder Cup squad that played in Europe since 1985, when he was a member of the first U.S. team since 1957 to lose the Cup.
"I'd like to go back over there and have a chance to do a little better than we did then," he said. "It's a challenge to go over there and try to win one of them over on their soil. I've never done it."
SLUMPING SERGIO: When Spain's Sergio Garcia nearly toppled Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, he seemed destined for stardom. Garcia already had won twice in Europe only five months into his pro career. He still is waiting for victory No. 3.
"Just because you do not win, it does not mean you are a bad player," Garcia said. "Is Davis Love a bad player? I forget how many seconds he has, but it is a lot. Of course, it is all about winning. I know that. I accept that. But I have plenty of time."
TV WOES: Area golf fans lose out on the Sunday afternoons when the PGA Tour is being carried by CBS-TV and Rays games are being shown on local affiliate WTSB-Channel 10. Golf does not come on until the conclusion of baseball. It happened during the WorldCom Classic two weeks ago, and it could happen again this weekend with the Greater Greensboro Classic. It could get mighty interesting in two weeks at the Byron Nelson Classic if Woods is in contention on Sunday afternoon.
- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.