By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000
PALM HARBOR -- Fred Couples was near a hazard. I say HAZARD! On Saturday, at the especially difficult 16th hole, the former Masters champion's drive faded into right rough. I say ROUGH! His ball came to an uneasy rest, maybe 20 feet from an alligator.
"According to golf rules," Couples said with a Discovery Channel kind of grin, "you don't get a free lift from an alligator. It's okay to shoo him into water. This 'gator was a big, unmovable object."
Couples, using his caddie as a lookout, played the shot. Fred got it to the green. Alligator didn't flinch. Humans then scooted. Couples parred the 460-yard hole, but "I did find other difficulties on the back nine." He shot 71.
Afterward, the 41-year-old Couples stood beneath Innisbrook oaks, the handsome face flushed from a competitive afternoon in Florida sun. Whatever the temperature, Fred is one of golf's coolest guys. So smooth. On a world of subjects, he conversed with ease, patience and compassion.
"I'm not making as many putts these days," he said. "It's not a sad story, but putting is often the difference between my 67s and my 72s. In total, my life is so good, I hesitate to complain at all, but I do still have plenty of inner fire, hoping to get my golf back to its best possible level."
He hasn't won in two years.
It's strange, seeing Couples at the Tampa Bay Classic, with Presidents Cup play going on in Virginia. For so long, Freddie has been a U.S. stud in international golf combat, constant mate of Davis Love, Tom Lehman, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
"I had my shot at being there, but I fell short," he said. His best finishes have been fifths at San Diego and Los Angeles plus sixth place, 10 strokes behind Woods, at the British Open. Fred is 44th in earnings at $949,415.
"I'm okay with being here in Florida, watching my guys on TV. I sat there alone Friday, yelling and urging a lot of golf buddies. I really got juiced when Kirk Triplett and Stewart Cink teamed so well, because I know it's not easy your first time (in the Presidents or Ryder cups).
"Sure, I'd love to be there. Maybe it will happen again for me, although I'm going to have to be a bigger achiever than ever before, being in my 40s now. Eventually, I wouldn't mind being captain, but not for a while. I don't think it's too difficult a job."
Couples, if he's ever a cup boss, might institute a dramatic change. "I'd like to see, instead of the captain making the pairings, let the players do it. They should have the best feel. Of course, not everybody could be teamed with Tiger, but I still think such a system would work well."
Couples is on the November cover of Golf Digest. A feature package, heavy with photos, delivers a homey look at Freddie at his Santa Barbara, Calif., estate with wife Thais and stepchildren GiGi, 9, and Oliver, 7.
"I've got a lot more going on now, even though golf is still what I do," Couples said. "There are lots of differences from when I used to let golf regularly eat at me, playing an unsatisfactory round and then going back to a hotel room and harping about all that went wrong.
"I married into a couple of great children. It might've never happened if those two kids had not taken so well to me. We're having a great time together. If you're just mommy's new husband, that can be difficult.
"GiGi and Oliver really do miss me when I'm gone. I always rush home as soon as possible to be with them. I love playing around the pool. Goofing around with our animals and the children. Shooting hoops with Oliver."
This is Fred's second marriage. His first wife, Deborah, was a flashy person who craved a spotlight far more than her low-key hubby. They always appeared such a mismatch.
Even to an outsider, Couples today seems happier, more contented and more fulfilled than ever, with Thais, GiGi and Oliver. Fred has gone through many changes, including the deaths of both parents within three years. Thais had breast cancer but it's in remission.
So, when he made three birdies on Saturday's front side, then fell back with three bogeys over the closing nine holes, Couples was not overly steamed. Disappointed, yes, but with considerable perspective.
"There's a lot of good things about getting older," he said. "My wife was responsible for me playing the Tampa Bay Classic, because she wanted to make a trip to Florida. Funny, but it didn't fully work out.
"Thais was fogged in at Santa Barbara. Next day, she drove down to Los Angeles for another try, but everything was messed up at the airport. She backed out, figuring her stay wouldn't be long enough by showing up late Friday. She went back to Santa Barbara. She's there with the kids."
Daddy will be home soon.