Easygoing Couples easy to root for

Fred Couples celebrates after finishing the second round

Fred Couples celebrates after finishing the second round of the Masters golf tournament. (April 6, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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AUGUSTA, Ga.

When Phil Mickelson was trying for his second green jacket six years ago, the climb seemed much easier because he was paired in the final round with his friend, Fred Couples.

When Tiger Woods returned from his self-imposed exile after a scandal unraveled his personal life, he played his first public practice round with someone whom he knew would be calm, supportive and friendly. Fred Couples.

When Rory McIlroy thinks of the guys he really likes on the tour, even though he hasn't been around that long, he thinks immediately of Fred Couples.

"He's just cool," McIlroy, 22, said of the man who is more than twice his age. "I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52 or whatever he is. Yeah, he's a cool guy. And he's good fun."

No wonder Couples feels so comfortable at the Masters, the tournament that binds eras and generations. If there is any one golfer who is as good as Augusta National at tying together disparate threads, it is Couples.

He is old enough to have played in the Masters that Jack Nicklaus won at 46 in 1986. Heck, Couples is old enough to have trouble remembering what happened here just one year ago -- he was 5 under par through 36 holes, trailing McIlroy by five strokes. But he also is young enough to be buddies with someone who was 2 when Couples won the 1992 Masters.

What's more, he is young enough to have shot 5-under 67 Friday to earn a share of the second-round lead in the Masters. He did it despite having to shiver through a chilly morning that surely didn't help his chronic bad back. He did it with his classic smooth swing and his what's-the-big-deal demeanor. That was beyond cool.

"It didn't surprise me at all. If he's feeling well and he's at Augusta, he's going to get on a run at some point," said his longtime friend, Long Island native Tom Patri. Quoting Couples' fellow senior golfer Jay Haas, Patri added, "That golf ball doesn't know how old you are."

Patri, now the director of instruction at Friar's Head in Riverhead, spoke by phone from his winter headquarters in Florida about the start of their friendship. Patri was dejected, having missed the cut at the 1980 NCAA Division I golf championship and was on the phone, making arrangements to get home. Couples walked by, tapped him on the head and invited Patri to play Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village course that afternoon.

"I had only known him for about five minutes," Patri said, noting they have been friends ever since. When Patri was the pro at Bellport Country Club, Couples visited two years in a row to help out in a fundraiser.

"He has had some well documented tragedy in his life," Patri said, alluding to the fact that Couples' former first wife's 2001 death was ruled a suicide and his estranged second wife died from breast cancer in 2009. "He has had to deal with a serious back condition. Through it all, he has been a guy's guy and a friend's friend."

Is he the greatest guy of all time? Honestly, this peanut stand never has seen a whole lot of Couples beyond the gallery ropes or outside various media centers. Is he among the greatest golfers? He has only one career major title.

Still, he is true to people he has met through golf. The specter of criticism didn't stop Couples the captain from choosing a struggling Woods to the U.S. Presidents Cup team. That worked out fine.

Couples is a golfer's golfer, a star on the Champions Tour and a marvel at Augusta. When asked last year what it would be like if he won the Masters, he said, "It would be the biggest upset in the history of sports."

You know what it really would be? It would be cool.