It’s been well known for decades that Fred Couples, easily one of the most gifted athletes in the annals of golf, has a lot more going on in his head than he is capable of articulating succinctly.
But while the former Masters champion might not always be successful in connecting the dots in discourse, there is no arguing he possesses an uncanny ability to communicate when charged with a leadership role in American golf.
Few men connect better with peers and young players than the man who will be serving for the fourth time as an assistant captain in the Presidents Cup to go along with his three successful terms as U.S. captain from 2009-13. With a combination of old-style cool, a keen sports acumen and the ability to sense a player’s level of comfort with his attitude and his game, Couples is arguably the most compelling figure in every team room that doesn’t also include Tiger Woods.
When captain Davis Love III talked to any of the prospective players who were vying to be among this year’s dozen competitors for the 14th Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Club, he was compelled to mention that playing for one’s country is a great honor, but there’s nothing like being able to linger in the company of his top assistant and longtime friend.
“I told all the guys that I’m offering something great,” Love said. “They get a free all-expenses paid trip to Charlotte for a week to hang out with Fred Couples. I mean, I’m offering a lot. And they’re excited about it. I’ve seen it so many times, these young guys get on one of these teams—and saw it at Whistling Straits [at last year’s Ryder Cup]. They didn’t care really if Phil [Mickelson] or I were there. They wanted to hang out with Fred Couples. It’s just amazing what he does for a team.”
“We all want to be like Fred. We all love being around Freddie,” said Steve Stricker, who enlisted Couples’ help in the 2017 Presidents Cup and last year’s Ryder Cup, both blowout U.S. victories. “Players gravitate towards him. We all do. We all want to be around him. He’s very calm, relaxed, rubs off on everybody.”
Only once has Couples been on the losing end as a captain or assistant, and that was in 2012 when the European team shocked the Americans in the Ryder Cup with an epic Sunday comeback at Medinah Country Club, where he also served under Love. And Couples takes some responsibility for the U.S. team letting a 10-6 lead disintegrate on the final day of singles matches because he read the room on Saturday night and didn’t react forcefully enough in preventing the letdown that ensued the next afternoon.
“We were just a little too amped up before the pairings that night. It’s not that anyone thought we had it won, but we were excited,” Couples said Wednesday morning while standing on the practice range at Quail Hollow after team pictures. “I’d already been Presidents Cup captain twice, but I still learned something then. I’ve always felt I knew when to tap a guy on the shoulder or kick another guy in the butt if he needed it, but always in a positive way. I can read a guy’s eyes and get a sense of maybe knowing what he needs. I see things, and as a captain or assistant it’s up to me to help … get guys ready to play.”
Ask around and Couples, 62, seems to accomplish this by osmosis.
Jordan Spieth, whom Couples selected as a captain’s pick in 2013 at Muirfield Village Golf Club, said that Couples’ presence alone is valuable in the team room. “I feel like Freddie is Freddie, and everyone knows what that means, right? He’s just so light,” said Spieth, playing in his fourth Presidents Cup, most on the USA side. “You kind of look over, and you’re like, ‘Oh, hey, Fred,’ and you just feel like really relaxed. He’s a relaxing presence. He has his own way with words. He’s always looking to make things easiest for us, especially pre-tournament, make it as stress-free as possible, get us point A to point B, stuff we wouldn’t be thinking of.”
“I personally vote Fred on every team possible until he dies,” Justin Thomas added. “I mean, he’s the greatest. He’s the best. He just is so funny to be around, so fun to be around. He’ll shoot you straight. He can get serious with you … he can do that. He can also kind of poke fun and joke with you. But he just brings a great dynamic, and Davis knows that and it’s not a coincidence that he’s an assistant captain on this team because he brings a great element in the team room for sure.”
That element is more than just presence. Prescience is a part of his makeup. Couples’ instincts in a competitive environment are especially keen, more so as an observer of events than competing in them. Stricker said that Couples is “very insightful,” and Zach Johnson, who is the U.S. Ryder Cup captain next fall in Italy, used the words “extremely cerebral.
“There’s a lot of thought, and he puts a lot into it,” Johnson added. “He’s invested. You just want to be around that.”
Jared C. Tilton
Instructive to that narrative was the scene that unfolded Wednesday afternoon as the captains and their assistants gathered to make their selections for Thursday’s five opening-day foursomes pairings. Couples sat in the center of the American contingent of Love, Stricker, Johnson and Webb Simpson, and he was doing most of the talking, holding a piece of paper up over his mouth like head football coach. Love made the final decisions. Couples appeared to be pulling the strings.
“I don’t think anyone assesses talent and putting players together better than Fred does,” Love said recently. “He works extremely hard at being prepared for these matches. He usually makes a great point when you ask him what he thinks.”
A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame in a playing career that includes 15 PGA Tour titles, including the Masters, and 13 more on the PGA Tour Champions, plus four World Cup titles paired with Love, Couples smiles broadly when you ask him about the vibe he brings to team rooms. Part of his coolness is the nonchalance in responding to the question of what makes him cool. He stumbles over a few words, then deflects.
“Well, I don’t know … I mean, I’m there to help,” he begins. “But I watch Davis, and he’s unreal. I told him last night, ‘You know, you’re really good at this.’ He’s the quiet general who doesn’t have to say a whole lot to get his message across.”
Lately, however, Love hasn’t been as quiet. A long-serving member of the PGA Tour Policy Board, the former PGA Championship winner has been one of the more vocal tour members speaking out on the fracturing of the professional game with the incursion of the LIV Golf Series. Love spoke recently about finding his voice because he has a platform as U.S. Presidents Cup captain. He noted that Couples has found his voice, too, in standing up for the tour.
Easily one of the more popular golfers of the last 30 years, Couples has his own platform because of his popularity and makes no apologies for using it, offering an observation here or posting his opinion on Twitter there.
“Let me tell you something,” he said, pointing a finger for emphasis, “I love doing it, there’s going to be more of it, and I’m not going to stop doing it.”
“He’s passionate about the Cup. He’s passionate about American golf,” Johnson said.
That is obvious as he sizes up his role in the game in the last decade-plus, following a team playing career in which Couples went 7-9-4 overall in the Ryder Cup and 9-5-2 in the Presidents Cup. He hasn’t had the opportunity to captain a Ryder Cup team, and he thinks he is too old now to get inserted into the pipeline, but he’ll happily continue on being a contributor to these biennial team competitions, if he’s asked. He’s happy to continue being Fred Couples, if being Fred Couples is worthwhile to others.
“I’ve been very lucky to be a part of these teams and to have had some success, and, yeah, it’s been great to be with all these unbelievable young players,” he said. “To watch someone like Tony Finau strike a golf ball, so much talent there. All these guys, they all hit it pure. Of course, I tell them I still think I could beat them if I were their age. I mean, I don’t like to lose. And they look at me and smile.”
Of course they do.