Fred Couples turns back the clock with second-nine birdies in his 38th Masters appearance

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred Couples fell in love with Augusta National when he made his first visit in 1983 — and he became a Masters legend when he won a green jacket in 1992 — endearing himself to patrons with his easy-going, friendly personality.

On Thursday, the 63-year-old from Seattle took a trip down Magnolia Lane to play in his 38th Masters, and then took a trip down memory lane with a solid round of 1-under par 71.

Couples made the turn at 2-over, but turned things around with birdies at Nos. 12, 13, 15 and 17 with a putt from off the green — before bogeying the last to close out his round.

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“It was a good day. It was a fun day. I actually played really, really well, even the front,” Couples said. “Then the back nine was really, really good golf, and I putted really, really well on the back nine. It was like everyeight-footer I had or ten-footer, I made. I made one from off the green on 17, and I three-putted 18 for bogey. But hit a good drive and a 7-iron in there. Hard to walk away with a bogey.”

He started his run of birdies at No. 12, where his ball famously hung up on the bank fronting the green after his tee shot in the final round of 1992, when he shot 13-under to edge Ray Floyd to win by two strokes.

This time he dialed in his tee shot to 12 feet and drained his first birdie of the day. At No. 13, he laid up with a six iron and wedged one in to 13 feet, holing a left-to-right put. He laid up again at the 550-yard, par 5 15th, and knocked a wedge from 75 yards to four-feet for a stress-free birdie. On the 17th hole, he left his approach short of the green, and smartly elected to putt — calmly canning a 48-footer that rolled in on its final rotation.

“I enjoyed the day. It was fun. It’s hot,” Couples said. “I would think, if you are playing when I did and you’re a really, really good player, if you shot par, you’d probably feel okay about it because you’re not out of it. For me, you know, I’m shooting as low as I can just to shoot as low as I can to hopefully make the cut.”

Fred Couples putts on the first green during the first round of the 2023 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Katie Goodale-USA TODAY Network)

Couples made the cut at the Masters for 23 years in a row from 1983 to 2007, equaling the record of three-time champion Gary Player. He’s made the cut 30 times in all, second only to the 37 of Jack Nicklaus. Couples’ 71 on Thursday was the best since his second round of 2019, when he missed the cut. His last made cut at Augusta was in 2018.

Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas talked earlier in the week about how far Couples can still get it out there with his free-flowing driver.

“So when I get pumped up, I can drive it far enough where it gets them all excited because last year I played — I was really almost a cripple, and I was popcorning it,” Couples said. “This year I felt pretty good. So I got it within 20 yards of them a few times, which is good. They’re — I don’t know how old Tiger is. He’s getting up there. He was blasting it. I know he struggled today a little bit, but it makes my week starting playing with those guys on Monday and Tuesday. That is a lot of fun.”

On Thursday, Couples played with Russell Henley and Alex Noren, and he said he felt at ease.

“It was a beautiful pairing. I don’t know them. I said it in there, I always watch Russell Henley play because it’s intriguing. When he gets the lead, he usually wins,” Couples said. “And Alex Noren, I just like everything about him. So when I got that pairing, I feel really comfortable getting that kind of pairing. Why is that? Well, because none of them are overpowering greatness. I don’t think they’d be mad to say that. And then I felt like I could compete in my group. Tomorrow may be different.”

Couples, who averaged 293 yards off the tee Thursday, said he has lost some distance with age with some of his clubs, and doesn’t carry a 3-iron anymore, opting for a 3-rescue club.

“But the 4-iron is hit or miss. I can hit it 200 maybe, and 20 years ago I could hit it probably 215,” Couples said. “It’s almost the same loft. I have kept my lofts — now 40 years ago when I first started, they were all tons of loft on them. But now everyone’s using stronger clubs.

“I hit a 7-iron 160 yards. Alex Noren hits a 7-iron 190. But he’s just so strong and powerful. I just can’t get my body there. But I’ll take a 7-iron 160, 162 yards every time.”

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