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The New Best Hope

Fred Couples brings his magical swing to the Champions Tour and fires up the over-50 competition and its spectators
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

The featured Threesome was making its way to the first tee of the Toshiba Classic this March and all around the Newport Country Club there was a distinct hum. People were waiting. People were talking. People were excited. Was that a buzz about 50-year-old plus golfers? Was there something like electricity in the air for the old guys? What's happening on the Champions Tour?

Many of these Southern Californians had come to see this group-Fred Couples, Tom Watson and Mark O'Meara, but mostly they had come to see Couples. When Freddie turned 50 last October, he turned to a new chapter in his career, and the Champions Tour turned a new leaf.

Tom Watson wasn't chopped liver-being an eight-time major winner who had nearly won the British Open at age 60 the summer before. Mark O'Meara was a two-time major winner himself, even if much of his recent cache was built around being a mentor to Tiger Woods.

But Freddie was the man, the lightning rod, the new hope of the Champions Tour.

"Ladies and gentlemen, former Newport Beach resident Fred Couples," barked the first tee announcer at the Newport CC. The cheers were loud and warm and when Couples cracked a long iron down the fairway, there was something that could be considered a roar, at least by Champions Tour standards.

For the last 10 years the Champions Tour (formerly known as the Senior Tour for those players 50 and up) has been looking for the next superstar because it had simply run out of legends. Built on the backs of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in the 1980s, then taken to extraordinary heights when Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino went head-to-head in the 1990s, the Champions Tour lost its mojo at the start of the 21st Century as Nicklaus left and Trevino became less competitive. And Tiger Woods came along, sucking up all the media attention and leaving the senior circuit in the shadows.

Hale Irwin, the most successful senior tour player of all time, just didn't have the superstar persona despite winning three U.S. Open titles. Watson, with his eight majors, was a legend mostly in Great Britain where he had won five British Opens. Good players like Loren Roberts, Jay Haas, Gil Morgan, Nick Price, Ray Floyd, Tom Kite and Bernhard Langer had the pedigree but not the pizzazz. Then you had a charismatic figure like Johnny Miller who chose to stay in the television booth, as did Nick Faldo. Greg Norman chose to use his star quality sparingly.

"A few years ago, we were very nervous," says Hollis Cavner, a partner in Pro Links Sports, a company that manages five Champions Tour events. "We lost the luster for a while. There wasn't anything particularly compelling about the Champions Tour. I mean, they are great players and great guys, but it wasn't clicking. Now Freddie has come out and something is going on.

"The Allianz Championship had our best year by far. Minnesota is ahead of sales. People are calling for tickets. Our sales are way up, our attendance is way up. I couldn't have told you that five years ago. It's easier to get big corporations to talk to you now. We're picking up steam."

While it's foolhardy to attribute any shift to a single individual, Couples, golf's coolest cat, not only came out to play, he arrived with a bang, even though he didn't win. In the opening tournament of the season at Hualalai in Hawaii, Couples battled Tom Watson down the stretch. Couples was five-under on the back nine, eight-under for the day and finished at 21-under after rounds of 65, 66, 64; Watson carded six birdies on the back nine to finish at 22-under, after rounds of 63, 66, 65. The final hour was like two heavyweights slugging it out, and produced some of the most compelling golf on TV in years. Watson won it with birdies on the final two holes.

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