Fred Couples: “I’m Not a Great Player”

Fred Couples was in the media center at the Charles Schwab Cup and he was in a pretty good mood. He had just played in the pro-am on the Cochise Course at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, and it had gone well:

To be honest with you, I actually played pretty well today which was surprising. I love the course. I think it’s a great choice…this is a very nice spot. I believe they used to have a tournament here [The Tradition]. Maybe a handful of guys that played it. I don’t know when it stopped or how many guys played it. But, for me, I really think the course is nice.

Obviously 85 degrees, not much wind [it was gorgeous!], makes any golf course play easy. I was in the rocks a few times and got out of the it okay. I’m a little rusty, and we’ll just see how it goes. But everyone wants to play well. But for me personally, after eight weeks off, or whatever the number was, it’s nice just to be out walking around. At this time I feel like I will be fine tomorrow and see if I can play four rounds. 

Had you played here before?

No, I’ve never been up here. I lived down the road for a year [at the exclusive Silverleaf Golf Club], but never played here. It’s unbelievable shape. It’s a nice course.

On my way home for the day, I was walking across the driving range [the range is 155 yards wide; I once lasered it] on the way to the parking lot and there was Fred Couples right in the middle testing drivers. He had his caddie, the equipment rep and two other guys standing there. Gary Hallberg was on the left end of the range and Michael Allen was on the right end. It was so strange, almost surreal, to come upon this scene; everyone else had left for the day.

I watched you testing drivers yesterday on the range, can you talk a little bit about that process for people that don’t know that much about it. It looked like you were hitting three of them and tweaking with the wrenches and did you find something?

Yes, I found my old one in the trunk. [Laughter] I took one of them out today, and actually hit a very nice drive on 10, which is my first hole. Then not so good on the next two, and then I just, you know, A, I haven’t played in two months. B, I don’t really think it’s a good idea, but I did hit it very nice off the 10th tee and I thought I will keep giving this a shot.

The process, again, everyone, I like to find them pretty quickly. I cannot bang balls for two hours and say, this is the right one, because I just can’t hit that many drivers. So yesterday, I probably hit 10 with each one, and that was way too many, so I probably hit 30 drives. Normally on a range I might hit 10.

So that was a little bit of a major process. But, you know, when I go on the course I like to hit them well. I don’t know how I hit them on the range. There is a feel, if you are hitting them solid, and they look pretty nice, then you take it on the golf course. If you can play nine holes with it, then I think you’re off and running. But in those nine holes, if you don’t hit it where you are looking, I feel like I go right back to my old one or try to find another one.

And then I turned the conversation to his signature presence; Mr. Cool, Mr. Laid Back, Mr. Not-a-Care-in-the-World.

You’re renowned for your laid-back way of being. And I am wondering what’s going on underneath all of that while you’re out playing under the gun? How do you to manage to remain so laconic?

I think it’s just how I’ve always been. You know, the first tee on Thursday, you should be fairly relaxed. But you are kind of edgy to get going. For me, personally, I think there is always shots that are kind of nerve racking. If you are going over water with a par 5, or even a par 4, or a tough pin placement, you kind of pay attention to it.

You know, I think when you’re trying to close off a really good round, or a Saturday round to be near the lead, or keep the lead, you know, I get just as nervous or edgy as anybody. But I don’t change. I don’t play faster or not think straight. But I don’t pull off all of the shots [either], otherwise I would have 100 victories and a bunch of Majors.

But at the same time, you know, I have always chosen to be very relaxed and, you know, I’ve told a lot of people when you have nine holes to go, and you are trying to win any golf tournament, you can look relaxed. It’s not very difficult. And then when you see other people, you know, you can just see younger players that they are doing things a little differently because it is pretty new to them. It’s not easy. Winning a golf tournament is not the easiest thing to do.

And then began a couple of exchanges with other reporter in the room that started to open up the can of worms that he doesn’t think of himself as a great player, but rather a darn good player.

You are going to be inducted in the Hall of Fame next May. A two-part question: How surprised, or were you surprised by that, and your reaction to it?

Well, I think it’s surprising. I think Phil Mickelson belongs in the Hall of Fame but maybe when they chose his name at his age it was surprising. But, you know, I came in in a good year. There weren’t enough votes for any other guys so I got in there. [A big, cat-ate-the-canary, Cheshire cat grin.] You know what’s really nice is Ken Venturi is going in also. And Jim Nantz is going to induct myself, and I believe Ken Venturi, so that will be a real honor and a treatment.

I mean it’s surprising. But I don’t think it’s surprising like, oh my God, I got in there. I have been on Tour a long time. I think when people talk about people in the Hall of Fame they are all great players. I don’t believe that I’m a great player, but I’m a darn good player, and I have been around for a long time. I think when people vote, if it came down to this guy or that guy, more people gave me a vote, or they didn’t vote that I got just enough.

He may think that, but based on his complete body of work, his playing record on both tours, his drawing power and his Captaincy of two Presidents Cup teams and assisting on Ryder Cup teams, the history of golf would be incomplete if he were not included.

Is the fact that you don’t think of yourself as a great player more due to the fact because of the back you just haven’t been able to play as much as you would have liked over the past 10 or 15 years?

I’m a truist. I don’t know what a great player is. I know there are a lot of them. But I would say on our Tour, if you are looking around, you know, Ernie Els is a great player. He has won a lot of tournaments. He has won 3 Majors, I think. Phil Mickelson has played a long time, too. He has been Top-5 on the Money List a lot of years.

But I believe that golf is a little bit different than a lot of sports when you start talking about the Hall of Fame because we get to play for so long. If you look at football player who plays seven years and gets injured, and he was the best running back 5 of those years, is he an automatic lock for the Hall of Fame? Maybe not. But if you look at him you’d say he is a great player because he was great.

I also played 30 years. If you look at it that way, I won a tournament every other year. So that’s not considered great golf. But a lot of it comes from just being around forever. I think I was just in the right spot.

I decided to press this whole idea that he doesn’t think of himself as a good player. Wouldn’t that cause you to have less confidence and become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

So confidence is such a big part of the game, and I’m really fascinated by the fact that you think of yourself as a darn good player but not a great player. Still, do you find that gap between how you think of yourself and how most everybody else thinks of you — does that impact on your confidence when you are playing?

No, I mean when I play I think I have a lot of confidence in my game, not cockiness. Some people are normal and they get a little cocky, which I think you need to be. But I think when you come and play out here you know you have to play really, really good golf. You have to do that on the PGA Tour also. But when you come here there is only so many guys that win. There are other guys that pop-up and win and it’s the same on the regular Tour.

But if you’re really going to start out 2013, I don’t know if Vijay is going to come play, let’s say Vijay came out and plays, you would think he’s going to get five wins. My first year, I believe, I won four times, and I took some time off in the middle of the year, and I didn’t play as much as Langer, or some of these guys. That’s irrelevant. I never played as much as Langer when I was on the regular Tour. So that’s a meaningless stat. But someone like Vijay, who is going to come out and play, you would have to play really, really good golf [to be competitive]. And if you played, and he won, and you finished second, then you would say you played pretty good. That’s how I look at this Tour.

On the regular Tour when I played, you could be leading after 54 holes and some guy could shoot 65 on Sunday and come and beat you and still play well. Out here, you have to play well every single round. I know you do on every Tour you play. But out here you could really shoot low numbers and get a lot of confidence.

[Today] Kenny Perry said, how did you shoot? I said, Kenny, it was calm. It was dry. The ball was going a mile and every putt I made was going in the hole. If it blows here tomorrow, and it gets cooler like it can, 2- or 3-under would be a hell of a score. But if it’s calm, I think there be a lot of 5 and 6-unders, you know, four or five of them in the round.

It’s supposed to be good.

That’s why I’m here. 85 degrees is hard to beat.

He started out making a good effort to answer my question, but then drifted away into rote answers on scoring and conditions and the difference between the two Tours that he’s probably delivered a hundred times — it really must be hard to answer these same questions each week with a response that makes it seem fresh; turn off the mind and just let the mouth run.

But if I was sitting on the couch with him having a beer, I would have politely pressed back with him, “Do you think your sense of yourself has any affect on your confidence under the gun?”

A public inquisition isn’t appropriate in this venue, but maybe some day I’ll find myself on that couch and we will have a grand, sweeping, collegial conversation that will last for hours.

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