AUGUSTA, Ga. - A 50-year-old actually is leading the Masters? A development like that could knock your socks off, if you happened to be wearing them. Fred Couples, the 50-year-old who does happen to be leading the Masters after a dizzying first round, is too casual for socks.
"You know, I've had back problems a long time," he said, echoing a complaint often heard from people in his age range. "I wear nothing but tennis shoes. I did wear some dress shoes for the champions dinner the other night, but they were not on very long. I wear tennis shoes and I usually don't wear socks."
As for those odd-looking rubber-soled Ecco golf shoes, he added, "I just feel like they are tennis shoes."
And when he gets between the ropes of a major championship, he feels as relaxed as he feels anywhere else. So his smooth swing held up (as did his back) well enough for the 1992 Masters champion to shoot a personal-Augusta-best 6-under-par 66 to take a one-stroke lead over fellow senior golfer Tom Watson, 60, and four others.
The funny thing about it is, it was no fluke. He has won three of four times out on the Champions Tour this year (losing only to Watson). Watson recently said Couples can win this week. Phil Mickelson, another of those tied at 5 under, said the other day, "I think Fred's got an incredible chance to win this week because he's playing some of the best golf of his career. And he's been winning."
Mickelson played a very relaxed final round on his way to his 2006 Masters title, and that is attributable to the tone Couples set in the final group.
Couples did the ultimate in tone-setting this week when he broke five months of worldwide tension by playing with Tiger Woods in the latter's first public practice round since November. Couples kept the mood light, joking with the crowd so Woods could work on his game.
Woods, who shot 68 Thursday, recalled telling his buddy during their 18 holes Monday that if it had been a regular Masters round, Couples would have been in the top five. Couples "played the same" Thursday as he did Monday, Woods said.
For Couples, the personality thermostat is set to "cool." But he does have competitive fire.
"You're always nervous no matter what age you are because you want to do well," he said. "I felt like today was just one of those rounds where maybe it was good that the wind was blowing when I was playing because [as a result] I wasn't expecting, you know, too much, to be honest with you."