Bad back can't keep Couples out of Masters

4-4-07 -- Fred Couples bent backward on the 13th fairway, looking as if he might start doing some yoga right there in Amen Corner. There was a little twist to the left, a little twist to the right.

With a bad back that could go at any moment, golf feels more like torture to Freddie the fan favorite these days. He's played all of two competitive rounds this year, and when the pain doesn't keep him off the course, the thought of it does.

No way he's missing this week, though. The Masters is his favorite tournament, Augusta is the course he plays the best. Nothing -- not even a back that can immobilize him for days -- could keep him away.

"This is probably the only tournament I'll play all year," he said after his practice round Wednesday. "Coming in here, being semi-healthy, making the cut and finishing in 45th place, it normally wouldn't be a great thing. But this year it would be."

Couples has made 22 straight cuts at Augusta National and is the only Masters champion to never miss the weekend. Make it again this year, and he'll tie Gary Player's record for consecutive cuts made.

That's a "huge deal" for him, a mark that speaks volumes about his talent as much as his tenacity. This is not an easy course, certainly not one you can fake your way around, and it's taken its toll on everyone from Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in their primes to Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

But something about Augusta National brings out Couples' best. He won here in 1992 and has nine other top 10 finishes.

And last year, he played in the final pairing with Mickelson. It was the 20th anniversary of Nicklaus' back-nine charge to a sixth green jacket, and while "Boom Boom" may not be the Bear, fans were thrilled to see Couples doing it at 46, the same age as Nicklaus in 1986.

That story line petered out on the back nine, though, and Couples wound up tied for third. Now, he's 47 -- too young to stop playing here, too old to think he's got many more chances to win.

"I didn't expect to do anything last year, but I still expect to play well here," he said. "But health-wise, if I make the cut, it's going to be hard to play five straight days of golf."

Couples has 15 PGA Tour titles, and there's no telling how many more he might have if not for his back. Spasms at Doral in 1994 forced him off the course for three months. The following year, he missed another three months. He's had to play a limited schedule in several other seasons since then.

But the current pain is like nothing he's ever experienced.

"You could be teeing up a ball or getting out of the car and it will pop," Couples said. "That's what's getting so frustrating."

He felt well enough to play Pebble Beach in February. But while putting during practice, he went to bend over and that was it. He gave his spot to the guy who was caddying for his amateur partner, left the course and spent the next four days in bed. He was in so much pain, even going to the bathroom was a struggle.

When he finally went home to Santa Barbara, Calif., he had to fly with his legs up.

He hasn't played an event since.

"It's kind of getting to the point where I don't know what I'm supposed to do," he said. "There are times where I've swung a club, and that's like a bomb going off. The rest of it, it's just really sharp quick pain in my back, from my chest down.

"Nothing hurts (now)," he said. "I'm stiff and it's kind of hard to stand here. Maybe I'm just getting used to it. It's not throbbing, it's just uncomfortable."

Couples has tried painkillers and he's tried rest, and neither gives him a permanent fix. He'd like to have surgery, but even that's been an ordeal. He's talked to just about every doctor he can find and no one can agree on what he should do. One in Los Angeles said Couples is a perfect candidate for surgery. Others have said he should hold off because he doesn't have pain in his legs yet.

"I say what point is that? I'm a golfer, and I can't really play that much golf," he said. "I don't know. If I go in and come out and it doesn't work, I'm not playing, anyway."

So Couples does the best he can. For as long as he can.

"Luckily it's when I'm 47, not 32," he said. "I'm to the point where I think after this there's gonna be a few other things going on and golf won't be one of them. Because I can't keep doing this."

He played the front nine on his own Wednesday, then picked up his friends Jeff Sluman and Davis Love III at the turn, along with Dave Womack, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion.

For fans who didn't know about his back, he looked a lot like the old Freddie. One shot was straighter than the next, and he never seemed to hit a bad one. He spent so much time chatting with Love and Sluman it could have been a coffee klatsch, and he stopped on several holes to talk with friends in the gallery.

But a closer look showed a less encouraging picture. He did some form of stretching on every hole. Sometimes it was a couple of simple trunk twists. Other times he'd pull his club up and behind his head, or clasp his hands behind his head near his shoulder blades.

And as he walked up the steep hill approaching the 18th green, he pulled his knees up high, as if he was doing a slow march.

Clearly, this week is hurting him. But not being here, that would hurt worse.

"I'm not here just to be here, but next year I'll be 48," he said. "I don't feel good. I'm just trying to keep this fun going."


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