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Couples Back in Friendly Confines This Week
Outside of Augusta National, Riviera Country Club is Fred Couples' favorite place to play. And the 53-year-old returns to the PGA Tour this week for the Northern Trust Open, which starts Thursday at the famed George Thomas-designed layout in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
The Champions Tour regular is playing in the event - which he won in 1990 and 1992 - for the 31st time. His second title here was the same year Couples donned a green jacket at Augusta National, a place he's played 28 times, recording 14 top-10 finishes in the year's first major.
As recently as 2010, Couples finished T-7 at the Northern Trust Open. He'll reassume the role as one of the tournament's fan favorites when he starts the first round at 7:22 (PST) on the 10th tee. The Seattle native's playing partners are Bubba Watson and Lee Westwood, making that threesome one of the most-watched groups of the day. Don't be surprised if Couples posts the lowest round of the trio.
On the eve of the $6.6 million tournament, Couples met with reporters to talk about what Riviera means to him and how he expects to compete against the PGA Tour's flat bellies. Here's what the eight-time Champions Tour and 15-time PGA Tour winner had to tell the media.
MODERATOR: Want to welcome Fred Couples to the Northern Trust Open interview room, if you could, just start with some opening comments about coming back here to Riviera.
FRED COUPLES: Well, yeah, it is probably my favorite golf tournament to play in. This is my 31st year, and Northern Trust has been awfully gracious the past few years to give me a sponsor's exemption. Just got done playing the golf course in the Pro Am. It's perfect. You know, for me, I have Bubba Watson and Lee Westwood in the pairing tomorrow, and that's exciting. On the Champions Tour, I played at Hualalai back in January, so this is the second time I've played this year. So I'm a little rusty but I'm looking very much forward to playing in this event.
Q. What does it mean to you to know that you've made the most starts here?
FRED COUPLES: I wish I would never have skipped it. But I don't really look at it that way. It's nice. I've had a lot of great finishes here and a lot of close chances to win even more than the two times that I've won, and those were great weeks. This is a fun week because of my age and I really want to play in the tournament. So like I said, Northern Trust has been very, very nice to a lot of players, but me especially to give me a spot. But you know, there are some tournaments where I feel like people deserve to play and I feel like I deserve to be in this field. I've played here a long time and had a lot of great finishes, and last year, shot 76 in the second round, which is highly disappointing after a great first round. So I look to play well tomorrow and Friday.
Q. If you can think back to your rookie season, if someone had said to you then, you would end up playing in the same event 31 times, what would you have made of that comment?
FRED COUPLES: I would have probably said, yeah, sure, sure. You know, when you're playing, there's probably a few players out here that will play a lot of years, but I don't even know the second tournament I've played the most events in. Maybe it's Augusta, which is about 24, 25, I think. I might even be wrong on that. This is just one I've always played. On the West Coast, I always want to get off to a good start. I lived a few years a mile from here and then I lived in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, so I was always close to it. To get back to your question, in 1981, if you would have said that, would you like to play here several years in a row, I would have said yes; 31, I would laugh.
Q. Was it love at first sight with Riviera? Can you take us back to your first experiences?
FRED COUPLES: Yeah, well I think I told someone just a few hours ago, I grew up in Seattle; it's got small greens here. The course I grew up, the greens were really small, also. Obviously this is one of a kind course. There are not many courses like this in Seattle. But I feel like you have to be a really, really good iron player here. And anywhere you go, you have to putt well, no matter if you're in Chicago or Cincinnati or Seattle or L.A. But my prime years on Tour, I was always up there in greens hit in regulation, and I feel like even tomorrow when I come out here to play, I have to hit a lot of greens. If you do hit a shot and it comes up short in a bunker, if you've hit a decent shot, you're going to be just short. It's probably going to plug in the lip. You're going to struggle to make bogey. And if you miss these greens, I'm sure you've seen enough people miss the 18th green to the left, it's almost impossible to get that up and down.
So you kind of know where to miss them, if you can, and I think I love that about the course. When you sit there and look at it, I would think if tomorrow is a nice day like this, there will be a lot of guys shooting 65 and 66, and you're going, my God, Riviera showing no teeth. But by Sunday, there will only be one or two of those rounds, because the course will firm up, the greens will get faster and harder and then it will show some teeth. But it's just the course I think everyone likes.
Q. Do you remember the first time you played in it?
FRED COUPLES: No, I don't, actually, I don't even know what I shot here.
FRED COUPLES: 73?
Q. I just made that up.
FRED COUPLES: That's probably good. I don't really know.
Q. Not to make you go back in memory lane, can you talk about the 10th hole? Do you remember how you used to play that hole back in the early 80s and how much it's changed with equipment over the years.
FRED COUPLES: Well, I will say this about the 10th hole, and my caddie, who caddied for 22 years here, I used to tell him, put the 3 on the card on the 10th hole. That's not being cocky. I just, now, I would take a 4 and run to the next hole. The green has become so sloped and so narrow in the back, that it is a brutal hole. But I think what you're getting at is now people try to drive the green. I used to always hit a 2 or 3 iron as far left as you could, and then normally a full sand wedge depending where the pin was. And the green has gotten - the way they have shaved the back of the green, it's got really, really hard.
But back, even in the 80s, I don't remember many people driving it on the green. You could, the longer hitters; now it seems like everyone under the right conditions tries to drive it right in that front bunker. Or I think Bill Haas hit it long and left last year, which turned out to be, there's a few more trees than what seems, but he was in a perfect spot and ended up winning there in the playoff. But that's not a bad place to be, pin high left coming across that green.
Q. But even now, could you physically hit driver?
FRED COUPLES: I did a couple years ago. I got it on the front edge once, and then long to the left. But when you're long and left, they cut it and when the pin is over there, you're going across the bunker, you really - I remember pitching it 20 feet right of the hole. I didn't even try to attack the pin. And if you lay up with a 2 iron shooting across, it's really no bargain. It's gone from a fairly easy hole to an extremely hard hole, even though it's 290 yards.
Q. Do you remember your biggest blunder there?
FRED COUPLES: You know, there's been a few. The year I lost to Phil, I drove it down there on the front of the green and I ended up chipping across and it caught the kikuyu, popped up, and I didn't get up and down and made 5 from right in front of the green.
Q. When you come out here or get to Augusta and see so many young players today, what about them really impresses you?
FRED COUPLES: Well, I think the easy answer is how good they are. And they are good because it seems like they all have proper mechanics. You know, going to top colleges and then of course the foreign players, they are all very polished. A lot of them come to play in colleges over here and then other ones turn pro pretty early. But I look at a lot of them, some of them, I know their faces, I don't know their names. I think that's understandable, 21 , 22 , 23 year olds. But played 15, 16 holes yesterday and I saw a few of them on the range. They all have beautiful swings and they hit it a long way. They are not like Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson a lot of them, but they hit it a lot farther than most people when I was out here that were 22 and 23 years old.
Q. Following up on Doug's question, after 30 years, do you have a favorite hole here, a favorite hole you can't wait to get to, or is there any hole that you say, oh, no?
FRED COUPLES: You know, oddly enough, and it's almost like if you hit the 16th green you have a birdie putt. I struggled on 16 but I also made a lot of twos there. But it's not a hole - I love 16, 17 and 18. I think they are phenomenal holes. But there are stretches where you have to hit quality shots, and really it's 1 through 18, you have to cut a tee shot and you have to draw a tee shot and you have to hit a 6 iron to the middle of the green, or you've got to hit a tough little wedge shot.
So favorite stretches, I know the last three holes, even 15, 15 is an incredible hole. They have lengthened it again and I hit 3 iron into it yesterday, and today I drove it in the rough. I didn't reach it. But I think those of good stretches. Now, obviously if you're starting on No. 1, you kick yourself if you don't birdie No. 1, because you know, you feel like you've got to be under par to cruise around. But again, it's cold, and I thought it played really long today.
So it's a little different than normal. But as far as me personally, after 30 something years, I have memories of all the holes. Even reminding myself that I birdied the 10th hole a lot, but I butchered it one year playing with Phil, which I had a good shot at winning. But then there are other times when I remember playing a hole really, really well, like the second hole. It's a hard, hard hole, and I play it well and I like the shape of it. But I think on this course, it's kind of a shot maker's course. If you can drive it very long and have a pin in the back of the green and skip a wedge three yards over the green and walk away with a bogey and you look and say, wow, I hit a perfect shot; well, really, you don't want to miss any of these greens. You want to hit the ball on the greens and you just need to be careful how you approach this course.
Q. With the exemption, do you actually call Mike Bone and say, I want to play, is it just understood that you're in every year?
FRED COUPLES: I would never I feel like I would like to play again next year. I'm playing okay right now. But I would never come here just to play. Like I say, last year, I had a really, really good round. I played at 7:09 the second day and to be honest with you, I had not played at that time in three years. I was a little excited to play well again, I'm not going to lie to you, but if I'm playing well, I can walk around this course and feel like I'm going to shoot par or very close to it every single time. And last year, 76 felt like 100, so I was really disappointed.
So I play tomorrow at 7:22 and I'm going to have a different routine. I might not play well but I'm going to get up a heck of a lot earlier and try to get ready. It's cold, and I just wasn't very good. To get back to playing, yeah, I want to play next year, but I don't want to come in I'm a 74 shooter. I'm taking someone's spot, I've played here a bunch, and that's plenty.
Q. Given your love for this place and Tiger has played here ten times, too, as an amateur, but not in seven years, are you surprised that he has not been back here?
FRED COUPLES: Well, I mean, his caddie is my old caddie, so I called him up five or six days ago; besides getting 25 inches of snow to see if he was okay, I asked if Tiger was going to play. He said he talked about it but he's just not going to play. I mean, they have schedules. But am I surprised? You know, yeah, this is not a knock - when I was a good player, I didn't play a lot of tournaments and I felt like I just couldn't prepare for other ones. But I'm surprised he's not won here before. I would think that if this is a good course for him, it's got to be a really good one for him. And the same as Phil. I think Phil didn't play here for a long, long time and then came back and now I bet every time he plays, he feels like he's the guy to beat. And I think that's a good feeling to have.
I personally think it's one of our top three courses on Tour, I really do. I think the TPC in Jacksonville is up there, and I think Memorial is one of my all time favorite courses. But I put this one amongst those three, and obviously when you pick majors, it's a different story. Augusta is my all time favorite. But I've played every year here because I want to play and I enjoy it.
Q. You had a point earlier about saying I feel like I've earned it, talking about an exemption; but it made it sound like you were aware or conscious of taking spots from the field. Just curious, whether it's anyone of your stature, say O'Meara at Pebble or Watson anywhere, do they have to apologize for anything when they have had the career you've had?
FRED COUPLES: I think I would apologize if I said, you know, I'm playing well, I don't want to play the Champions Tour this year and I've got seven sponsor's exemptions to here, Memorial, Phoenix and I started taking spots and I wasn't playing very well; then you look out of place. But for Mark O'Meara to take an amateur up to Pebble Beach, he's won five times, people have to really respect that. I don't even know how many times it happens. I know Tom Watson plays Colonial or used to a little bit. I know Corey has played at Colonial. But those are courses they have done extremely well there, and I've done well here.
So I feel like I'm not - I don't know whose spot; I don't who is next in line to play, and not to be flippy, but I feel like if a guy could be in, he'll be in next year. I don't want to take people's spots if I'm not playing well. Like I said, up until my second round last year - I was really disappointed, the way I played, and I think I had two birdie putts coming in. My goal is not to make a birdie on the last hole to make a cut. After 69, my goal is to shoot another good score and be in contention and play well.
But also, in another year or two, like I said, there's no reason just to play at L.A. to shoot a couple 74s. That's a waste of everyone's time.
MODERATOR: Certainly expect you to play well this week, thanks for taking time.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.