NAPA, Ca. – Fred Couples hasn’t played a non-major PGA Tour event in over 2 ½ years, so he stood out as he warmed up for his pro-am time at the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort & Spa. Hunter Mahan gave him a hug, Nick Watney stopped by, and it was no coincidence that Couples was hitting balls next to Bill Haas, son of one of Couples’ best pals Jay Haas.
Couples’ caddie had disappeared, but reemerged to say he’d just sauntered down the range to say hello to another caddie nicknamed Rigatoni.
“I haven’t been out here in so long,” Couples said, “I don’t even remember who Rigatoni is.”
(His caddie was referencing Tony Navarro, whom Couples knows well.)
Couples turned 59 on Wednesday. He said his goal this week is to make the cut, if everything breaks just right, because that would be a nice way to go out after nearly four decades on Tour.
“I’m planning on this being my last PGA Tour event besides Augusta,” he said.
He enjoys watching the Tour on TV, but has otherwise been far removed from his former life as one of the premier players in the world. The 15-time PGA Tour winner, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013, spends most of his time on the PGA Tour Champions these days, when he’s healthy.
“I played nine holes yesterday,” Couples said, “and didn’t recognize a lot of the guys.”
Why would he? How he ended up making one last Tour start at Silverado, which he praised for not being “9,000 yards long,” owes to the power of the place—Southern California resident Couples comes to Napa for concerts and to peruse art galleries—and of good friend and tournament promoter Jeff Sanders of Lagardere Sports.
“He asked me to play two years ago and it was during a Champions run, so I didn’t come,” said Couples, whose best result on PGA Tour Champions this year was a T3 at the American Family Insurance Championship. “And he called last year and said, ‘We really, really want you. Phil’s coming.’ And I said, ‘Jeff, I don’t want to take a spot and pull out (because of injury).’
“And this year,” added three-time U.S. Presidents Cup Captain Couples, “I said, ‘Jeff, I’m coming,’ so he gave me a spot, which is awesome.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so at the Safeway, the first of 43 regular-season events in 2018-’19. Even as Couples made the short walk to the first tee to start his pro-am round with, among others, Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy, he was stopped to take a picture with a fan. Many of his fellow players count themselves among the Freddy faithful, as well.
“It’s so great to see him out here,” said two-time defending Safeway Open champion Brendan Steele, who will try to become the first to win the same Tour event three times in a row since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic (2009-’11). “Like so much of the rest of the Tour, I just love the guy. I’ve just always thought he was so cool, and I’ve gotten a chance to play with him, being in Southern California. He’s so much fun and treats me so great.”
Couples splits his time between Orange County, where he’s about to move into a new house, and Palm Desert, Calif. He plays out of Big Canyon and the Madison Club, respectively, and while his on-again, off-again back pain has allowed him to play only sporadically, he finished T38 at the Masters in his most recent start amongst the younger (under 50) crowd.
His swing, metronomic and with a heavy hit, hasn’t changed much.
“It’s always so pure,” Steele said. “This is a great course for Freddy. He’s going to drive it so nice and hit so many solid shots. It’s kind of an old-school place, a little bit of a throwback place, and he’s going to understand the angles and how to play everything. He’ll have no problem around here.”
Couples will play the first two rounds with Brandt Snedeker and Patrick Cantlay.