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Couples goes for the green

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 2000

St. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Is this St. Andrews or St. Petersburg? Abundant sunshine. Gentle breezes. Short sleeves. Sailboats in the bay.

For a half-century, the Old Course has brought golfers to their knees, but at the 129th British Open, you hear so many begging a different kind of mercy.

Please, let it blow.

"I don't want to say it's not that difficult, but ... " were respectful, concerned but tailing-off words from Fred Couples. "Of the 14 driving holes, on eight I have shots to greens of 100 yards or less. Strange for a major championship."

Give us zealous zephyrs causing whitecaps on St. Andrews Bay, putting all 18 flags into a furious flap. Who wants to see this cradle of golf rechristened Old Course Putt-Putt?

"If you got mostly lucky bounces and had a career putting round," Couples said, "it's not impossible that somebody will shoot 62 or 63, unless the winds appear. Everybody and his brother could be 10 under."

Couples shot 68 Friday, becoming a contender. After 15 holes Friday, the cool American stud had his name atop Open leaderboard. "As untough as the course is playing," Freddy said, "there are still snake pits."

He birdied the 14th and 15th, holing putts of 10 and 40 feet, becoming boss of the tournament by one stroke. On No. 16, Couples had 185 yards to the green. His 6-iron carried 182, two steps shy of perfect, burying in a deep and nasty bunker.

On the Old Course, there are only 11 putting surfaces. It offers seven double greens, where two holes share the same expansive yard. One of the grassy duplexes couples the 16th and second holes.

Did I say couples?

So lousy was Freddy's situation in that sand, he couldn't think about aiming toward the 16th hole. His best option was to fire toward No. 2. He blasted to within 6 feet of the wrong hole.

"Three other fellows were playing there, so I had to mark my ball and wait," Couples said. "Finally, when my turn came, it was a 150-foot putt across hill and dale toward the cup at 16."

Freddy stroked it well, coming within 6 feet. Missed that one, making double bogey. "I should've shot 66, but I just wish scores weren't running so low."

After a 1999 slump, without any top-three finishes, Couples, 40, reintensified his professional interest. After some troubled years with a busted marriage and the deaths of both parents, he has found tranquility with his second wife, Thais, and her two children.

"I was playing so lousy, I skipped the British Open at Carnoustie," he said. "Big mistake. With only four majors a year, no matter if your game is suffering, it's the right thing to show up and give it your best."

Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, has resurged in 2000. He hasn't won and is 37th on the PGA Tour money list, but "it's begun to feel good again, to a point where I've got no excuse not to be contending Sunday."

His popularity is undiminished. "I feel almost like a British "homeboy,' getting warm appreciation at every hole," Couples said. "It would be my greatest win if I make it happen here.

"British Open crowds know golf so well. When your approach is just a few feet right of the 17th green, these people understand that's a good effort. They appreciate the right things."

Couples was asked about the 100-yards-or-less Old Course characteristics with today's powerful, gifted golfers and exotic equipment. "With all the short approaches, it's easy to think we should have endless birdie putts of 6 feet or less," he said. "Despite all the shots of 100 or 90 yards or less, you don't get a high percentage really close to the holes. I mean, with all the quirky bounces."

Few golfers are more equally magnetic with male and female fans. Couples has unisex appeal similar to Greg Norman and Tiger Woods. "Golf is a nice sport, but I frankly come to stare at the lads," said Sheila Gadsden, 34, a schoolteacher from Edinburgh. "Freddy is a doll. A looker. So sexy. I'd follow him anywhere."

Couples doesn't easily embrace adulation. "I'm a shy guy," he said, blushing. "As good as it was to have a couple of marvelous years (five wins including a major in 1991-92), it also made me jumpy.

"It seemed ridiculous that just because I played good golf, that everybody wanted me to talk about myself. I'm no movie star or famous politician. I try to be friendly, but it's not comfortable for me if I'm asked to gab with everybody and hug people I don't know."

Looking to hug a Claret Jug.

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