Presidents Cup Captain and Hall of Fame golfer Fred Couples holds on to his laid-back life
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perlman, January/February 2014
In August of 1977 Jim Nantz was an incoming freshman at the University of Houston, an aspiring golfer who had thoughts of a pro career. He was going to be a member of the Cougars’ golf team, and the coach had gathered his players before the start of school for a get-to-know-you outing at a nearby golf course.
It was there that Jim Nantz, a few years removed from a starring role as a CBS sports announcer, met Fred Couples.
“My initial thought was this guy was very bashful, doesn’t have a whole lot to say, but seemed a really warm and likeable guy,” says Nantz. “That was from our initial freshman orientation. Then coach took us out to a golf course to play, seven freshmen in all, Sugar Creek, where we all had our first opportunity to speak without golf clubs, so to speak.
“Then Fred stood on that first tee. I still remember it, he took this swing that looked like it was in slow motion and the ball came flying off the driver like it had been shot out of a cannon. I thought right then and there, I had never seen anybody—and I had attended a lot of events, tour events, as a kid—I thought right then and there this guy is going to be a star.”
In May of 2013, nearly 36 years after he saw Couples use his syrupy swing to create deadly force on a golf ball, Jim Nantz, a star in his own right, was introducing Fred Couples as a new member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. The man known as “Boom Boom” who talked far louder with his clubs than his voice, finished his acceptance speech with a throat clenching bang: “Thanks for taking a kid from Seattle and putting him into the Hall of Fame. This is the coolest night of my life.”
When it comes down to it, Fred Couples is the coolest golfer on the planet. His accomplishments in the game are significant, though not overwhelming. His career doesn’t rival that of Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino or Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. He has 15 PGA Tour victories that include one major, the 1992 Masters (his ball miraculously hung on the bank on No. 12 above Rae’s Creek on Sunday), and it was during the spring of that year that he briefly was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. But it was the way Couples went about the game, his swing, his walk, his laid-back attitude—and surely his looks—that etched him into the national golf psyche. Fred Couples was made for television.
“They say the TV never lies and I think television completely identified, in perfect symmetry, who Fred is,” says Nantz.
Couples, now 54 and a Champions Tour player, continues to maintain an unmatched coolness that TV loves. Wherever he plays, the camera follows him, especially when he has contended in his two favorite regular tour events, the Masters and the Los Angeles Open. He has always been in high demand for golf’s “Silly Season,” those made-for-television events in the fall where Couples cleaned up over the years, winning more that $3,500,000 alone in 11 appearances in the Skins Game. He now has three television commercials appearing frequently on golf broadcasts, for Mitsubishi Electric, Bridgestone and Anatabloc.
John Cook, who has played with and against Couples his whole career, was a bit miffed at some criticism that Couples’ record, with only one major victory, wasn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame.
“What he’s done on and off the course, he’s moved the needle,” says Cook. “He has been criticized for getting into the Hall of Fame. Well, people do move the needle who have nice records, didn’t win as much as a Ray Floyd, but these people move people around the golf course, they move the needle. The Hall of Fame is not just on performance, but on achievement, he’s achieved a lot.”
A big part of that achievement, for Cook, is Couples’ television presence. “He’s totally made for television,” Cook says. “His looks, his style, everything. There’s nobody else you would want in the made-for-television season than the guy who was made for television, and that’s Fred.”
The Presidents Cup is a totally made-for-television team event that the PGA Tour created to take advantage of the TV popularity of the Ryder Cup. And who got to captain it for three straight events? Fred Couples. That honor was bestowed on him, his peers feel, because of the immense respect he has for his fellow players and they have for him. And they know this—he is always “cool” under fire.
“On the very bottom level you would think Fred would not make a very good captain, he’s too aloof, he doesn’t care, is he going to pick out the outfits,” says Cook. “But if you look at it deeper, Fred would make a great captain because he is relaxed, he doesn’t talk about golf so there is no stress, there’s no drama, zero. He’ll tell them whatever your routine is, that’s how you are going to practice. It worked for three teams because guys knew there wasn’t going to be any drama. They also know how intense he is when the gun goes off and it’s time to play golf. And that’s how those teams were, very relaxed until it came time to play. They really respect him.”
So who is Fred Couples, really?
“He’s the guy on the couch with the remote control, or at least that’s the guy he wants you to think he is,” says Tom Lehman, a former Ryder Cup player and someone who seems as intense as Couples seems relaxed. “Just an über-talented guy, shy. He’s a unique blend of shy and show-off. He’s unafraid of the limelight, unafraid of the pressure. When you think about Freddie you think about an incredible talent.
“He’s cool. He’s like the guy who never chases anybody. He’s always getting chased. If you look at some people in this world, you say to yourself I’d like to know that guy, he’s cool. And that’s what Fred kind of does.”
On the practice range at Harding Park in San Francisco during the Champions Tour Charles Schwab Cup this fall, the atmosphere is typically relaxed, and typically social. At this stage of their careers, the 50-year-olds aren’t all about beating balls anymore.
With a gaggle of fans trailing behind, Fred Couples strides onto the range. Immediately, the banter level skyrockets. Couples is a wealth of information about sports, and much of his free time—there is precious little of it, actually—is spent with TV remote in hand scanning the broad spectrum of sports he loves. Baseball, hockey, football, basketball, he touches on all of them. Tom Pernice, Corey Pavin and Rocco Mediate are close by, all engaged with Couples over some aspect of sports. “Hey, did you see that Allen Iverson is retiring?” Couples asks, of everyone and no one.
“There are guys in this world you just want to be friends with and Freddie is one of those guys,” say Lehman. “There are guys who he makes their day if he walks past them and gives them a high five. He’s a guy’s kind of guy. Players respond well to that. He never toots his own horn, in fact he’s just the opposite. He’s sells himself short a lot of times.”
During the driving range chatter, Couples is hitting a few balls. For the last 20 years, back issues having limited his game, put a damper on what his fellow competitors know would have been a true superstar career. This morning after a few wedges, a few short irons, a few fairway metals, he takes aim between two blue gum trees down the left side of the range, hitting a cut 3-iron between their shaggy trunks and under their droopy branches. On 10 swings he clips one leaf and doesn’t come close to the bark. Couples went on to win the tournament in dominating fashion. It was really cool.
“I just can’t hit a lot of balls, and really feel I don’t have to,” says Couples. “I know what my game is and how I have to manage my [health]. As long as I can stay healthy, I can compete out here and I’m going to play the Masters until I can’t walk anymore.” For sure, everyone wants Fred Couples playing as long as he’s able. He’s good for the game, good for television. In fact, so good for television that he might be getting more advertising time than any other player.
His commercials for Mitsubishi Electric have been particularly effective, playing off his debonair style by making him a doofus in social situations. Joe Mastroianni, chief marketing officer for Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating, has seen the “Boom Boom” effect in his company’s ads.
“Fred is the marquee Champions Tour player to sponsor on the Champions Tour,” says Mastroianni. “I would say that once you get past Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Fred might be the most popular golfer there is.
“The creative strategy is getting these golfers out of their comfort zone. What we like to do is get them out of their normal golfing experience and put them into everyday-life situations where you are not always in control and ultimately you are out of your comfort zone. While humorous at the same time there is an element of truth to it that resonates with consumers, and Fred pulls it off as well as anybody can. He’s terrific at it. We make him look, not like the graceful golfer he is on the golf course, but more like the common man.”
And it is this aspect of Couples, the up close and personal part, that seems to radiate through the television screen even if his millions of fans will never get to experience it directly.
“[The commercials] basically depict who Fred is,” says Cook. “That would be Fred on a date. If his date is going to the bathroom and Fred is holding the purse, that’s exactly how Fred would look and sound holding a purse and flowers and having this little agitator Corey Pavin come up to him. He would be just like that.”
“We haven’t done a Q rating. Our sales are dramatically up year over year, we’ve seen 20 and 30 percent growth a year over the last three years,” says Mastroianni. “Our brand awareness has increased 113 percent, that’s not all about the golf initiative, but certainly golf plays into it. Our business was unknown. Fred’s done a great job creating buzz that gets people to remember Mitsubishi Electric.
“He is terrific to work with. He’s an incredible natural actor. I mean that in the most complimentary way. He takes direction well. We hire a director who is very good at working with nonprofessional talent, so he knows how to get the most out of people who don’t act for a living. Fred has been tremendous, he works very hard at it.”
As for Couples’ overall appeal, Mastroianni just had to look at the Masters last April when Couples, playing so well at Augusta National, was in the last group on Saturday.
“This year alone on Saturday he was in the last group, the featured group so that exposure for the logo on his shirt is all part of the deal,” he says. “It was worth a tremendous amount of money if you looked at just that one day at the Masters.” And you might consider that Couples helped establish the crossover golf shoe market when he started wearing Ecco’s version of it five years ago. He made them cool.
His golf buddies all know he’s cool, they just have a tough time coming up with words to describe how that’s so. “Freddie is way cool, but he’s somehow indefinable,” says Mediate. “He plays golf the way we all want to play golf. He looks like he doesn’t care. He’s got this beautiful motion, the ball goes 74 miles. What shocks me is, he didn’t win 50 tour events. That’s how good that guy is. He’s out there, like, I’ll just hit this 320. It’s like he’s not doing anything. He’s one of those talented guys you say ‘Why does that happen so easy for you?’ ”
His long-time friend and Presidents Cup assistant captain Jay Haas still marvels at what Couples can do. “My good friend Billy Harmon has said that Fred is in the category of golfing genius,” says Haas. “Fred is one of those guys who doesn’t know how he does it technically, he just knows how to do it. In the most artistic sense as a golfer, that’s Fred Couples.”
As for who Fred Couples is, Haas has this to say: “We have been friends for, what, 30 years now. I don’t quite know how to describe him, I just know I like him. Fred is one of those people that maybe doesn’t want people to know him that well, that isn’t someone who has to be out front and beating his chest, look at me.”
Couples can make the game look incredibly easy. But life hasn’t been. His parents died early, his mother Violet on Mothers Day of 1994, his father Tom of leukemia in 1997. He’s been married twice. His first wife Deborah, from whom he was divorced, committed suicide in 2001. His second wife Thais, from whom he was estranged, died of breast cancer in 2009.
“That’s what people don’t really know,” says Nantz. “He lost his mom and dad in about a three-and-a-half year span. I know he took it really hard. I knew Tom and Violet really well, thought the world of them. They made a lot of sacrifices for their youngest child. Fred’s the youngest, Tom Jr. and Cindy. It’s a spectacular story how Fred came from the public golf courses of Seattle, specifically Jefferson Park, to rise to champion golfer, to be the Masters champion and now he’s in the World Golf Hall of Fame. All of that goes back to how he was raised in that loving home in downtown Seattle.”
And there is the constant issue of his back. He suffered an injury to it on the driving range at Doral in 1994 and has constantly fought to stay in the game despite being barely able sleep, suffering migraines, battling inertia just to leave the house. In 2007 he only played six official rounds because of it, four of those being at the Masters. He’s gone through all sorts of remedial regimens without having back surgery, and credits a procedure developed in Germany called Orthokine (not currently approved for use in the U.S.) for allowing him to play as long as he has. He first traveled to Germany for the treatment in 2011. The process involves rendering proteins from the patient’s blood and injecting it into the affected area over the course of several days.
“I’ve been three times to Germany for Orthokine procedures,” says Couples. “I don’t feel great. But there was a time that I wasn’t sleeping my back hurt so bad. I could still swing, but the idea that you couldn’t live a normal life after you play golf, you wanted to quit. I’m not nearly in as much pain. What he’s done has helped out and I will continue to see him until what he does runs out.”
No one wants Fred Couples’ time to run out soon. He remains the most cuddly of all of golf’s stars, the man whose image reaches out through the HD screen.
“There were a lot of people who tried to make a big to-do about it when he became No. 1 in the world, it got written a lot that he didn’t like handling all that attention,” says Nantz. “I think he does a really good job of handling it. Here he is leading the Presidents Cup team to three straight victories and handling all the nuances that go into that, meeting with leaders of industries, governing bodies of golf, presidents of the United States, I think he handles himself quite well. He’s a wonderful hang guy. People enjoy being around him. His fellow pros love him. The modern day tour stars love him. There’s a magnetism about Fred.”
At the Hall of Fame induction Fred Couples was asked to explain who he is, which is the most difficult question to ask anyone—especially Fred Couples. As he often does, he went into a stream of consciousness, a lot of words coming out that didn’t add up to quite what he was trying to say. But that’s another of Couples’ endearing qualities.
“He’s the guy whose ball stayed on the bank at 12 at Augusta,” Couples said. “People know I won Augusta. He’s got a smooth, slow swing . . . I was answering this the other day, but maybe my knowledge of things is maybe a little bit different. When you’re a baseball player, and you get into the Hall of Fame, it’s a little weird no matter who you are today. I guess you wait five years [to get in]. And the weirdest thing is that I’m still playing. I had a chance to win Augusta, and the next month I’m in the Hall of Fame . . . I never thought about the Hall of Fame as a kid. I never made a putt in my backyard to [get in]. It was always to win the tournament that was on TV that week. I never made a putt to say, wow, if I make this I’m in the Hall of Fame. No one does that. But when in there, obviously, I’m lucky to be in here. I barely got in, but I’m in, and it’s quite an honor. That’s the answer to your question. A long one.”
It’s an answer, but it’s not about him. And maybe that’s the coolest part about him. That’s the part that Jim Nantz, and those people who know Couples well, love about him.
“The guy who stood up there before the world of golf and accepted this incredible recognition to join the game’s greatest, the game’s elite in the Hall of Fame, to break down and cry out of complete appreciation with his last line being a thank you for recognizing a kid from Seattle for the Hall of Fame, that’s who Fred is,” says Nantz. “He’s a guy who never forgot his roots, who has a grateful heart.”
And is completely cool about it.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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