The last time we saw Fred Couples around here, it was brief.
As in one-shot brief.
The greatest golfer in Washington history and the unquestioned star of the Boeing Classic at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge was done in by his chronically bad back. He could barely move, so after one shot last year he told his playing partners he was finished. The last glimpse of Couples was seeing him gingerly squeeze into a car, his future uncertain.
But this story has a happy ending. The tournament carried on without its biggest draw, and Couples has recovered just fine. He made another great run at the Masters this spring, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May and has played well all season on the 50-and-older Champions Tour.
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Once again, he is the headliner of the Boeing Classic, which begins Friday. For Couples, who grew up next to Seattle’s Jefferson Park Golf Course, this has been a must-play event since he turned 50 in 2010.
If you think last year’s withdrawal gives Couples extra motivation, you’re wrong. Just playing in front of his hometown fans is motivation enough. After playing in the British Open and Senior British Open in late July, Couples went home to Los Angeles to begin practicing for this week.
“It’s my hometown and I want to play well,” he said. “So, after being off three weeks, I should be ready to go.”
Couples said he didn’t feel great during the pro-am rounds at last year’s Boeing Classic, but thought he’d be OK to play. But when he teed off on the first hole, it was like a “bomb goes off.”
“To be honest with you, walking down that hill to my golf ball is probably one of the dumbest things that I ever did,” he said. “I couldn’t even hit a chip shot. I just couldn’t move.”
Couples recovered for a week at the home of his longtime friend, John Bracken, before finally being well enough to travel. He said it was the fifth time in his career that his back completely gave out. He was confident, based on previous experience, that his condition would improve.
“After a couple of days, I feel like it’s getting better, (but) it just takes a long time,” Couples said. “But it’s part of the deal, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Couples returned to action more than two months later in the Charles Schwab Cup the first week of November and finished tied for fourth, sparking a stretch of fine play. He has been second in four Champions Tour events, including in three majors, and has been fourth twice.
The O’Dea High School graduate has made the cut in all four PGA tournaments he has competed in this year and tied for 13th at the Masters, the event that is most dear to him where he marked his biggest career win, in 1992. Couples was just one shot off the lead after the second round this year.
“Everyone wants to win, and I’m no different,” he said of all his runner-up finishes this year. “I’ve been close. And second place is good, but not all the time. I feel like if I can win, maybe I can win two, but you’ve got to get the first one, and I’m hoping that will happen.”
Also on Couples’ mind these days is the Presidents Cup. He will be captain of the American team for the second straight time when the U.S. plays the international team in October at Muirfield Village in Ohio in the biennial event.
But this week, Couples is focused on winning. His best finish in the Boeing Classic was third place in 2010, the first year he was eligible to play. Couples has said the course suits him well, but has lamented not taking better advantage of its four par-5s.
Couples has done well on No. 14, the drivable par-4 over the canyon that carries great risk and reward for those giving it a go rather than laying up in the fairway. Fans have been known to get a bit raucous on that hole while encouraging players to try to hit it on the green with their drives.
Couples, who retains great length off the tee, has never let the fans down. But he was a bit nervous the first time he played it.
“The very first time I got to the hole, I hit a 3 wood right onto the green, so that’s really a comforting feeling,” he said. “If I would have hit some crappy shot or whatever, then every time you play that hole until you hit a good shot, you kind of feel uncomfortable on it.”
Couples hopes that when he reaches that hole Sunday it has extra importance. That would mean being in position to win locally for the first time in an official Tour event.
“I’m from Seattle,” he said, “and I want to win in Seattle.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943