Who doesn’t like Fred Couples? He owns a swing we’ve all long admired, a demeanour any golfer would love to emulate and a generally loose and languid way about him that matches his flowing action. It’s good to be Fred Couples.
The 60-year-old ventured back to Australia last week as one of Tiger Woods’ three captain’s assistants at the Presidents Cup, during which he shared his thoughts on the biennial competition, reminisced about his past visits to Australia and hinted at making one more.
Like a lot of Australian golfers, my first memory of you actually involved Royal Melbourne – the 1988 Bicentennial Classic where you ran second to Rodger Davis in a playoff. What are your memories of that week?
“That started my love for Australia and Royal Melbourne. I tell you what I remember – everyone knows it’s a great course – but I remember some of the biggest crowds I ever played in front of. Not like Augusta or the US Open, but there were so many people and it was such a great field. I remember the rolling greens and they were so fast. Kind of a golf course that was playable, but you’d walk off a hole and go, ‘Oh my God, I just made bogey there.’ You can make some birdies on it, but it’s a very, very tricky golf course – but very fair.”
Where does Royal Melbourne rank in your mind among the world’s top golf courses?
“People always ask: my favourite three courses are Royal Melbourne, St Andrews and Augusta National. And it doesn’t change – those are my three favourites. And they’re three just completely different golf courses. But for me, personally, when I go and play, every time I play St Andrews I just get an absolute rush from the design and how unusual it is. Of course Augusta is my favourite course, and Royal Melbourne… every time you play it, it’s just different. When we’ve played there before, one hole might be a driver then a 40-yard shot because it was with the wind, then the next day you go, ‘Holy cow, there are bunkers there that I can’t even get over and now it’s a driver and 7-iron.’
“To me, that is based on where the course sits, in the Sandbelt, but that’s what I love about it. There are very few courses that can play that differently. And whoever designed it, meaning [Alister] Mackenzie 100 years ago, just was way ahead of the game.”
Everyone wants to dissect why the Internationals haven’t won more. Viewed from an American standpoint, why do you think the International side keeps coming up short?
“One of the things is the language barrier. Their players completely come from all parts and some of them don’t know each other that well. And it’s hard. The pairings are much easier for us and we also have a Ryder Cup, so we know that last year in the Ryder Cup, this guy paired up well with this guy or this guy didn’t pair up well. Whereas for Ernie’s team, or Nick Price’s team or Greg Norman’s team in the past, it’s a little difficult. But the bottom line, really, is when you go out there and play, I honestly think in this game it’s easier to play when you get ahead.
“If you’re in our team rooms – this is where I giggle because we lose the Ryder Cup because they’re [supposedly] more team-oriented and they’re more together, and there’s nothing further from the truth in my opinion. When you get our team together, it doesn’t matter that we won in New York [in 2017] and that we’ve won almost all of them, or that we lost in Australia – I was on that team [in 1998] – or that we tied in South Africa, but I think it’s just a little easier for us to pair and we have more veteran team players. If you can play in the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup is a little easier to play in, it really is. And you have to experience both of them to understand that. And there’s no International player that will experience a Ryder Cup, but they can certainly experience a Presidents Cup. There’s no rhyme or reason why we do better, I don’t think, except just for that.
“It’s just a pairings thing and we might have a little edge in pairing our guys, whereas if one guy on Ernie’s team doesn’t feel comfortable playing with another guy, he may not feel comfortable playing with too many others because he doesn’t really know them. And that’s not all their guys – that might just be two guys, but they’ve still got to play all the matches. There’s no other reason. When you’re beating Vijay and Adam Scott and Greg Norman and Nick Price, I remember Jumbo Ozaki – we barely beat him – but in the long run we won more matches and we got ahead. And any time you get ahead in these things, it’s really easier and it puts more pressure on the other team to close out a close match. And it’s the same thing at the Ryder Cup. When you watch the Ryder Cup, we come down 16, 17 and 18 and they win more matches than we do, and that’s why they win. It’s not because the night before they all patted each other on the backs and said, ‘Go get ’em.’ It’s just that they win these closer matches and I think that’s what the US does in the Presidents Cup.
“Getting points is not easy. It’s almost like winning a tournament.”
For the future of the event, does it need to be more competitive – or is that viewpoint overrated?
“It’s not overblown, and it can’t be much fun for a guy like Nick Price or Greg Norman or Adam Scott to be on a lot of losing teams, but I look at things differently. We play so many golf tournaments that we don’t win. I’ve played 700 golf tournaments and probably won, all around and including Europe and other places, probably 30 times, so it’s not like we’re all Tiger Woods and we go and win half the time. When you’re on a team and you’re losing all the time, it’s really rough but this thing’s going to be around forever and we’ve just got to keep sustaining it.”
You’ve played, captained and vice-captained at the Presidents Cup. Which is most fun?
“The most fun is playing.”
Is the role of captain overrated, as in… is it much more about how the players combine and perform in that given week than anything the captain does in preparation?
“That’s a heck of a question, so I’ll answer with this: I played on a lot of Ryder Cups and a lot of Presidents Cups and I had all great captains. Whether they were loosey-goosey or stern and I didn’t know them that well, I never really had a problem with any of the captains. I wish I could have played with a couple of other players than I played with – I think we all do, we all want to play with guys we feel comfortable with. But if three guys want to play with one guy, it’s kind of hard for all three of you to play at the same time with somebody you feel comfortable with.
“So the way to answer that is, yeah, I think as a player you enjoy it much more, but as a captain you enjoy the part of running the show and being entertained for the week. That’s a good question, but I would rather be a player.”
You’re a Rolex Testimonee – what is it about such a premium name and brand that resonates most for you?
“My longest sponsor now, as I get older, is Rolex. In 1992, was when I signed up with them. Every sponsor is amazing but they’re just incredible to all their players and to all their entertainers, sportspeople, movie actors, actresses, wearing these watches that are incredible and I’m just part of that team. For years we used to have a dinner at the US Open, a Rolex dinner, and now I have one at the British Senior Open, which is sponsored by Rolex, and the people… because they’re not telling you about golf and they’re not telling you their clubs are the best or they’re not telling you their ball is the best and they’re not telling you their shaft is the best, they’re kind of more ‘hip’. Does that make sense? They have watches that fit a 20-year-old and they fit an 80-year-old. I don’t go around wearing the same watch that a young Rickie Fowler wears, but they have a knack to fit you in the right watch.
“The very first watch I got was in 1992… and it’s a Daytona with a leather band and it’s just the slickest little thing. When I got to be Presidents Cup captain, I got a rose gold Presidential in 2009 and it’s the most beautiful timepiece. I don’t even know if I deserve the darn thing. But I’ve been with Rolex for 27 years and it just keeps going on, and that’s why it’s so special.”
You won the 1992 Masters at the peak of your career. What’s one Major you look back on now with regret as a missed opportunity?
“There’s a couple. The British Open, there were a couple of times when… I never got down to the 71st hole or 72nd hole, but I got deep into the rounds. I played with Norman when he won, I played with Justin Leonard when he won and I was very close maybe two other times, battling it out. But there was one tournament I lost to Wayne Grady, the  PGA at Shoal Creek. That was one that really… I mean, he won and he did all the right things, and I did some wrong things to let him get closer and get ahead. But that’s one that really was like… really some bad golf the last nine holes.
“I would get away from that and say the British Open, just by the style and the way I play and the feel I have for the game over there, I just really felt like I could have won a British Open. I did win a British Senior Open at Turnberry, which was one of my first few and I was surprised at how hard they set up the course for us guys over 50, but that’s a very, very incredible win – it’s a senior Major. But just not winning a British Open… it was one I wanted to win.”
Could we see you back in Australia playing in a tournament here again?
“I’ve played, I’m going to say at least a dozen times in Australia. I’ve played everywhere from Adelaide to the Gold Coast to Sydney a few times, Melbourne a few times. It’s one of my favourite, favourite, favourite places, so I’d have to keep playing and I’d have to be on the right course so I could compete. I’d have to be playing – I can’t take a couple of weeks off and then go try to play with the young guys, it’s too mentally… I’m not prepared. Whereas if I go and play a Champions tour event, I still feel like I can still compete if I take time away from golf. You can’t do that on the regular tour. These guys are so ready to play every single round. You don’t lose your game but you’ve got to be razor-sharp.
“Would I want to go back and play in Sydney or Melbourne? Yeah. They’re really, really incredible fans to play golf in front of. It’s a unique experience – they know a lot about golf. As I get older, I’d better do it next year…”
I’ll plant a seed with you, because next year’s Australian Open is at Kingston Heath, so that would be a good one to choose.
“I’ve heard all about Kingston Heath. I’ve never played there, but I know a lot about it.”
You have a legion of fans worldwide, but what’s something about you or your career that most people don’t realise?
“A long time ago, when my body started to break down, I figured out my body pretty quickly, even in my early 30s. Playing and sustaining a lifestyle of enjoying golf and playing it and working as hard as I possibly could and being able to keep playing. Some people look and say, ‘Well, geez, he could have done better.’ But most of the time, people will ask, ‘If you didn’t have a bad back, would you have done better?’ And the easiest answer would be: ‘Of course.’ But I like to answer it as: I still got to play golf; I won a tournament when I was 43, in Houston. There were some other tournaments that I probably felt like I could have done better if my back had held up for four rounds. But it was more a marathon than it was a sprint. And that lasted a while. People know that – I’ve had a bad back since a long time ago.
“Some other things? I think I found a love for golf a lot more in my late 40s. Even though I look nonchalant and I try to have fun, but look, I get frustrated. Most of the time, I have fun with what I’m doing, whether that is trying to hit a 3-iron in a 20-mile-an-hour wind or trying to stop a bunker shot that’s impossible, I still have fun with it. And when I don’t play well, I get frustrated just like anyone in the world. But overall, I feel like I have come to realise I enjoy playing golf. I don’t play every day… but in the past 12 years – and the Champions tour’s helped – but I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go play. Why am I going to play?’ I rarely, rarely say that, and that’s a good feeling. I just enjoy playing. Am I in love with golf? Not so much anymore, but when I go out there I actually enjoy myself. Whereas when I was 44, 45, 46, it was really a grind. My body didn’t feel good, I couldn’t practise enough to continue to be good, but I could play well in stretches.
“Part of the reason I really ‘babied’ my back was so when I’m 60, like everyone else I can go play with my buddies until I’m 70. I don’t know what’s going on with Jason Day but it really bothers me because he’s got such a great golf game. But it can happen to anyone and he’s got some minor back problems that just won’t let go and then one day, they’ll just let go [and] he’ll have, knock on wood, two, three, four, five years of good play. But I’m telling you, it’s very difficult to play when your back is not moving. I can promise you that. You have to learn how to do it.”