Fred Couples was the Boeing Classic’s one-hit wonder early Friday afternoon in Snoqualmie: After hitting the ball one time, it was difficult not to wonder if his golf career is approaching the end.
Back problems have plagued Couples longer than he wants to remember, but the spasm that forced him to withdraw Friday – “like a bomb went off,” he said – must have been as scary to the 52-year-old as it was sudden.
At the tee box of the first hole, a 554-yard par 5, Couples took one of his typically effortless-looking swings. He bent over to pick up his tee, then walked down the fairway with playing partners Mark O’Meara and John Cook.
By the time Couples got to his ball, he realized he couldn’t attempt a second shot, much less finish the round. He spoke briefly with O’Meara – the friends shared a fist bump – before asking caddie Cayce Kerr to pick up the ball.
Fred Couples’ day was over, but his quest for a stable, stress-free back is without end.
“I didn’t feel very good warming up,” said Couples, who during a driving-range conversation with Golf Channel commentator David Marr didn’t mention anything about back discomfort. “I hit the tee shot at No. 1 and then my lower back really locked up when I walked down to my second shot.
“For this to happen to me in Seattle,” Couples added, “this is a rough one.”
The Boeing Classic was supposed to be a happy homecoming for the Seattle native and O’Dea High graduate – his happiest yet. Couples, after all, hasn’t won a tournament on a Washington golf course since the 1978 Washington Open, which he played as an amateur after his freshman year at the University of Houston.
Couples led after the third round of the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee before driving his tee shot at No. 2 into a green-side pond. He took a triple bogey and never caught up to Bernard Langer. Couples’ two previous Boeing Classic performances were inconsistent – third place in 2010, a tie for 16th last year. Still, his body was OK, and his interaction with the fans at TPC Snoqualmie bordered on magical.
After winning the Senior British Open in July, the gallery favorite had to be considered a tournament favorite. Then came one swing, and its unsettling aftermath.
Without having seen a doctor, “it’s time to rest,” was about as deep Couples could go about his plans. He traveled to Germany last summer for a blood-treatment procedure known as “Orthokine Therapy.” Couples called the decision to undergo the treatment, unapproved in the United States, a “no-brainer” and it’s conceivable he could return.
“It really, really helped,” Couples said on the eve of the 2011 Boeing Classic. “I don’t know how long it will help. I haven’t had any pain. It could last this week; it could last six months.”
Couples’ treatment apparently lasted 13 months. He loves to play golf, but annual trips to Germany for an experimental blood-treatment procedure could put that love to a test.
The other day, Couples was asked what he would do if physical issues limited him to a handful of tournaments a year.
“I just had a great time in Italy and Greece, so I could do that a couple times a year,” he said. “I mean, I will want to play golf, but you really have to play golf to be good.
“Take Tom Watson,” Couples went on. “He’s in his 60s. To me, he’s unbelievable. If you give him one shot more a day, he goes from 8th place to 16th to 20th, but then he can win at any time because if he plays a little big, he gets better quickly. But it’s very hard. He’s got a body that’s in pretty good shape. Mine is not.”
Couples said something else prescient.
“I’ll play once in a while and hopefully I’ll get a little bit on a roll and do well in that time,” he said. “For me to play well every week, I have to work at it and work at it and work at it, and it is just killing me.”
Have we seen the last of Fred Couples as a regular competitor on the Champions Tour?
He returned to the Seattle area and took one shot Friday before his back betrayed him. Feel free to wonder when he’ll take his next firstname.lastname@example.org