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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

(continued from page 1)

Golf Channel ratings, which are miniscule at best for the Champions Tour, were cranked up a few notches, outperforming the PGA Tour's Bob Hope Classic. Then, Couples went on to win three in a row, the ACE Group Classic, the Toshiba Classic and The Cap Cana Championship (there were actually spectators following him at that resort course in the Dominican Republic).

To top off that stretch, Couples and Watson helped the Champions Tour even more by ending on the leaderboard for long stretches at the Masters this year. And was certainly fortuitous that when Couples was exploding onto the Champions Tour, Woods was absent from the game, in self-imposed hiatus after revelations of infidelity surfaced last December.

Couples hasn't had what you might call a legendary career. He has 15 PGA Tour victories that included the 1992 Masters, but he hadn't won anything official since the 2003 Houston Open. That's a nice resume, though not a great one; he has been hampered often by a bad back.

But there's no mistaking the power of his fluid swing. Combine that with the potency of his good looks and he has long been one of the game's most popular players. Need someone for a television event, call Fred Couples. He was a Skins Game stalwart and a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf regular. He was the brightest star of the Funny Money Season, from November through December when all sorts of made-for-television exhibitions were more than willing to pony up big bucks for Couples to play. This cuddly-teddy-bear, awesome-ball-striker persona worked for him, and now it's working for the Champions Tour.

This season's class of Champions Tour players was always going to be a strong one. Tom Lehman began his first full season on the tour. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin had recently turned the magic 50 followed by Paul Azinger, captain of the victorious U.S. side in the 2008 competition. Mark Calcavecchia marked 50 in early June. All visible names, all viable contenders, all capable of putting a few fannies in the seats and selling a hospitality table.

But make no mistake. Whatever the resurgence of the Champions Tour this season (and the recovering economy has a lot to do with it), Fred Couples is the driving force. Men come to watch his fluid, powerful swing. Women come to watch him, period. How Couples plays the game is easy on the eyes, even downright relaxing. His stroll-in-the-park attitude is the antithesis of a Woods or a Palmer.

"We get 100,000 people a year because the Champions Tour fits in nicely with the demographics of Southwest Florida," says Jason Camp, executive director of ACE Group Classic. "Fred was a late addition to our tournament this year. But we could see that he attracted a lot of the crowd, even on the driving range. There were a lot of women out there watching him."

Jon Karedes, tournament director of the Dick's Sporting Goods Open, a Champions Tour event in the Binghamton, New York, area, was out watching Couples at the ACE Group Classic.

"This rookie class, with Couples leading the way, is tremendous," Karedes says. "Names and faces that people recognize immediately. A lot of ladies 30-60 at the ropes at the driving range at the Ace Group Classic watching Freddie. With Kenny Perry coming at end of the year, with Mark Calcavecchia coming out, there are a lot of good players out there to be watching."

Clearly, that's what the Champions Tour needed, someone watching. At its peak in the '90s, there were a lot of people watching. Who wouldn't want to watch Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino go head-to-head, or watch the iconic Palmer and the ageless Player? The presence of legends made all the other stories of the Champions Tour better. When club pros like Jim Albus and Larry Gilbert won tournaments, their stories were that much better because they did so against the legends. We got to know tour regulars like Jim Colbert and Bob Murphy. Dana Quigley winning his first senior tour event in 1997 on the day his father died was universally touching.

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