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.
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.
Trevino's presence alone could drive up attendance by 100 percent. When he played the old Northville Long Island Classic for the first time in 1990, the tournament was overwhelmed by the crowds. Thousands show up just to see him, and all aspects of the tournament from the shuttle system to the marshalling to the concessions were suddenly overburdened, though the chaotic situation was also tremendously exciting. A usual tournament crowd of 7,000 became 14,000. Then Nicklaus showed up at the Northville in 1994 and now the crowds were more than 25,000. Trevino and Nicklaus had sent the senior tour into overdrive.
"They were waiting for us to come out," says Trevino. "Once we got there, it was the Super Bowl. Hell, we were the best damn show in golf."
The best damn show in golf couldn't last forever. Age had to take its toll. And when the supernova named Tiger Woods came along, the senior tour began its fade to gray. As the economy started to slide, as companies looked for bigger bangs for their bucks, or to save them altogether, the renamed Champions Tour lost its investment luster. Crowds dwindled, ratings plummeted and eventually some tournaments folded. Gone was the Transamerica Championship in Napa, California. Gone was the Long Island Classic, the remaining event of what had been a three-tournament swing through the well-heeled suburbs of New York City. Gone was the AT&T Champions Classic near Los Angeles. A schedule of around 35 tournaments per year was whittled down to the mid 20s.
"Nobody has made that kind of impact since," says Trevino of the tour's glory years. "Maybe Freddie can do it. This tour needs somebody to make an impact. We've got tons of good players, but somebody has to make an impact."
That impact has come from a player with a swing that makes an impact. It's not only fans who watch Couples hit balls on the range. When he shows up, the other players know it, just from the sound of his club striking the ball. They will look over their shoulders, just to verify what they know so well-Freddie's pounding it, and effortlessly.
Longtime friend John Cook, a successful Champions Tour player, has been waiting for Couples to come along. "It's great to have Fred out here," says Cook. "You know that when Fred is in the field, he is the guy, the guy to beat. He brings a lot to our tour. Our tour was doing well, now it's going to do even better. I think he brings a lot of exposure and gets his following out to [watch]. We would like to have him out here as much as he feels he wants to play."
Cook sees the attraction of Couples' style. "Fred is what you get," he says. "Exactly what you see is exactly how he is. He just moves along with a long, flowing swing and he kills it. It looks like he doesn't care, and he doesn't care. There's no real mystery to Fred Couples. He is very, very good and always has been."
If you ask Couples to explain where he is at with his game, what position he occupies within it, or just about any other question, you get rambling answers, the substance of which is scattered around like so many dangling participles. There is an answer there, you just have to cull the herd of clauses and asides to get to it. It seems pretty clear, however, that Couples knows where he belongs now.
"I'm a Champions Tour player now," he says with little equivocation though he will still play a few events on the PGA Tour. "I have no problem with that. I've been waiting since 10 years ago. I didn't think I would want to play the Champions Tour. When I got to be 46, I started thinking they should lower the age on the Champions Tour. And I was able to play pretty well a handful of times [on the regular tour] to kind of keep me interested. Now with that in mind, I think I fit pretty well out here, and I think I will help the tour just like Corey Pavin and Tom Lehman."
The competitive side of the Champions Tour is important and it's important that a player of Couples' stature has done so well right out of the box. But the meat of the Champions Tour success lies in its ability to connect business to players and players to business. A regular Champions Tour event has two pro-ams on Wednesday and Thursday and it is these amateur players, willing to shell out thousands of dollars, who are the underpinning of a tournament's charitable endeavors. If more of them are attracted to the Champions Tour because of Couples, all the better.
Nick Price, three times a major championship winner and among the most affable of all tour players, knows where the tour's bread is buttered.
"The success of our tour is how much value our sponsors get on Wed-nesday and Thursday," Price says. "We are playing with CEOs, presidents, businessmen. These are the people who really get something tangible out of the experience. We have long-established players, major championship winners, playing with these people. It's a very good fit from the age stand-point, the maturity standpoint. It's quite easy to fit together."
And winning isn't quite everything at this age.
"The competition has been de-emphasized I think," Price says. "I mean, it's important to be competitive, but if you are not it's about having fun talking to the galleries and the sponsors. There is a real connection there."
That said, Price knows the value of having Couples' high visibility. "Fred's got a tremendous following and people are going to come out to see him," Price says. "When they come out to see him, then they see a lot of the other players out here, guys in the Hall of Fame, see what fun it can be out at a tournament. Our tournaments are very fan friendly. We interact with the fans more. Golf is unique in that way, and the Champions Tour is the epitome of it. Fans will get to interact with Freddie more closely out here than at a regular tour event."
Price is also advocating changes in the tour to make it more interesting. "I just think we have too many 54-hole stroke play tournaments and they can get boring," says Price. "I think we ought to have some more team events like the Legends of Golf. I think it would be neat to team up with the LPGA for a team event. There are things we can do to change things up and going forward I think we need to do that. We can't stand still and just hope people come out to see us."
Just how long fans will be able to see Couples play is guesswork. His chronically bad back can go out on him at any time. Last fall he stopped playing because of back issues. He was the captain of the Americans' victorious Presidents Cup team. He turned 50 last October and was eligible for two Champions Tour events, but chose to skip them in favor of rest and recuperation and his captaincy.
"My time is pretty much on the Champions Tour and I think I can compete here," says Couples. "Now I have got to figure out for how long. And if it's for three or four years, I think that's great, if I can last that long."
Even if Couples' competitive career is that short, it just might be enough time for the Champions Tour to gain traction. As Dick's Sports Goods director Karedes said: "Fred will sell tickets. People will drive to see Freddie."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.