Couples, Fred (b. 1959)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 9/01/2015
  • Essay 11104

Fred Couples is a Seattle native who became one of the world's top professional golfers. He grew up playing on a city-run public course, Jefferson Park, and won state-high-school championships his junior and senior years at O'Dea High School. He was a two-time All-American at the University of Houston before turning pro in 1980 following his junior year. Known for his long drives, which earned him the nickname "Boom Boom," and his ability to shoot his way out of difficult situations, he won 15 Professional Golf Association (PGA) tournaments, including the Players Championship in 1984 and 1996, and the 1992 Masters, one of golf's four major events. His best seasons were 1991 and 1992, and he was named PGA Player of the Year for each. His career got a boost when he became eligible for the Champions Tour (for ages 50 and up) in 2010. Still playing at 55 despite chronic back problems, he had amassed earnings of more than $30 million on the PGA and Champions tours and millions more in international events, exhibition appearances, and product endorsements. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013.

Location was everything in determining Couples' path in life. He grew up in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood just a few blocks from Jefferson Park, and from the time he was introduced to golf by his father until he went away to college, he was on the course more often than not. He was, as many who saw him play said, a natural.

A Young Phenom

Frederick Steven Couples was born on October 3, 1959, the third child of Thomas J. (1923-1997) and Violet (1928-1994) Couples. Tom worked for Seattle Tennis Club and later, until he retired, for Seattle Parks and Recreation. When Fred was in fourth grade, the family moved from the Rainier Valley to a modest house on Beacon Hill. Once Fred discovered golf, he played at nearby Jefferson Park every chance he could, sometimes sneaking onto the course to avoid paying. He wrote in an elementary-school paper, "When I grow up, I want to be just like [famed golfer] Arnold Palmer" (Bissell, 1). He scored his first hole in one at age 10. At age 11, he was hired to retrieve balls hit at the course's driving range, earning $4 a night and even more time on the course. He started playing in local junior tournaments before he was a teenager, and soon was competing with the course's best adult regulars. He had taken no formal lessons, but his talent was obvious.

At O'Dea, the all-boys Catholic high school on Seattle's First Hill, he made the golf team as a freshman. Already uncommonly adept at controlling the flight of the ball, he added power as his body matured. He won the state high-school championship easily as a junior and by an overwhelming 14 strokes as a senior. By then he was forbidden to use a driver at Jefferson Park's driving range, reducing the chances he might hit those playing basketball 300 yards away. Years later, teammates remembered him occasionally amusing himself on practice rounds by using a wedge off the tee and a driver off the fairway and still managing to get birdies. While in high school, he showed no interest in girls and didn't learn to drive a car. His ambition as described in the school yearbook with his senior photo was "to go to college to play golf and become a professional golfer or a businessman" (Bissell, 20).

Colleges were not clamoring to get him, even though he had won the city and state junior championships as well as British Columbia's, and in the summer after graduation would add the Washington amateur championship. He hadn't played in national tournaments, so he was relatively unknown outside Seattle. His grades weren't good enough to get into the University of Washington, and Brigham Young University and the University of New Mexico turned him down. Arizona State showed interest but offered no scholarship. Then the coach at the University of Houston, Dave Williams (1918-1998), got a tip. "I had a fella from Seattle write me a letter and he said there was a boy up there that could get out of trouble better than anyone he had ever seen" ("Just Fred"). He offered Couples a partial scholarship. Couples gladly took it.

Turning Pro

As a 17-year-old freshman, Couples quickly proved his worth at Houston, then a collegiate golf powerhouse. On a team of 18, he was among the top five by Christmas break and an All-American by the end of the school year. He returned to Seattle for the summer of 1978 and, at age 18, won the Washington Open, beating touring pro Don Bies (b. 1937) for the title. As a sophomore at Houston, he was named the team's Most Valuable Player and nearly won the Southwest Conference championship, losing in a playoff to future pro Payne Stewart (1957-1999). He won All-America honors again. That summer he posted the best score by an amateur, finishing 48th overall, at the U.S. Open.

Couples repeated as team MVP in his junior year, winning five events and finishing eighth in the NCAA championships. He also met Deborah Morgan (1958-2001), a University of Houston tennis player. His first girlfriend and later his wife, she was among several Houston contacts who figured prominently later in his life, including teammates Jim Nantz (b. 1959), who became lead golf broadcaster for CBS Television, and Paul Marchand (b. 1959), who became a teaching pro and the one Couples turned to when he had problems with his game.

College classwork didn't interest Couples. He was more eager to launch a professional career than return to Houston. Before the start of his senior year, while visiting Morgan in southern California where she was working as a tennis teacher, he decided he wanted to play in the Queen Mary Open in Long Beach. Told the amateur spots were all taken but that a professional spot was still available, he opted -- apparently on the spur of the moment and upsetting his parents, especially his father -- to forego his senior year and turn pro. He finished in the top 10 at the Queen Mary and won $2,000. Weeks later he attended PGA qualifying school, barely making the grade. He joined the tour in 1981.

Getting Married, Getting Noticed

Couples played in 25 events that year, winning none but finishing second once and third once on his way to earning nearly $79,000. Morgan joined him on the tour, and they married on December 5, 1981. His parents deemed it a mismatch, her outgoing personality and flamboyance in vivid contrast to his low-key, laidback style. On the golf course in 1982 he earned about the same amount of money while showing occasional flashes of top-flight potential. His best finish was third at the PGA Championships, where he set a nine-hole course record of 29. In 1983, his third pro season, he got his first victory. It was at the Kemper Open and packed with drama. He had the lead going into the final day, but ended up in a five-way playoff. When he won, Deborah Couples memorably bolted out of the gallery and into the spotlight, embracing her husband with what was later described as a "running straddle-jump" ("Sneaking Up on Stardom"). She was thrilled. He was embarrassed.

In his fourth year on the tour, 1984, he won the Players Championship at Sawgrass in northern Florida, shooting a course-record 64 on the second day. Among those he beat was Hall of Famer Lee Trevino (b. 1939), who declared "Fred's going to be a player to be contended with every week now" (Bissell, 55). Couples lived up to that promise with top-10 finishes at two major tournaments -- ninth at the U.S. Open and fourth at the British Open. He ended the year ranked fourth on the tour money list. At age 25, his career earnings topped $700,000.

What followed were a relative lull and some soul-searching. Couples went winless in 1985 and 1986, in the latter year missing the cut (failing to qualify for the final two rounds) 10 times in the 26 events he entered. There were signs of trouble in his marriage, and doubts raised about his desire and work ethic.

After working on his mechanics with Marchand, Couples bounced back in 1987, winning the Byron Nelson Classic and starting a run of six straight years when he set career highs in money earned. In 1989 he was picked for the Ryder Cup, a prestigious competition pitting a team of U.S. golfers against the best in Europe. That same year he finished with the sixth-best scoring average on the PGA Tour. A big victory for him came at the 1990 L.A. Open, where he took the lead with a course-record and career-best 62. Everything came together for him in 1991. He was third in the U.S. Open and in the British Open. He led the U.S. to victory in the Ryder Cup. He won the Vardon Trophy for having the best scoring average on the tour, 69.59, and was named PGA Player of the Year.

A Major Breakthrough

Despite his success, Couples still had not won a major tournament. Sportswriters and some players wondered if he would ever live up to his potential. He had a sporadic approach to practicing and showed little emotion when he made a bad shot, finished poorly in a tournament, or failed to make the cut. Jack Nicklaus (b. 1940), winner of a record 18 major tournaments, described Couples as "a guy with tremendous talent. But you never see him do much" ("The Couples Conundrum"). Tom Weiskopf (b. 1942), another standout pro, said Couples had great talent but no goals. And CBS commentator Gary McCord (b. 1948), in a stinging on-air comment, said Couples had "all the motivation of melted ice cream" ("The Couples Conundrum"). Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly summed up the rap on Couples: "great swing, no drive" ("Bank Shot").

It was harder to fault Couples after his 1991 season and especially after the way he started 1992. At the L.A. Open he made up an early seven-stroke deficit and beat Davis Love III (b. 1964) in a playoff. He finished second in his next two events and led all the way to win the next one, the Nestle Invitational. By April he had collected more than $700,000 in winnings and was on top of the world rankings.

Next on the schedule was the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, the first of professional golf's four major tournaments each year. Couples was favored to win it and, heading into the final round, was just one stroke off the lead. Raymond Floyd (b. 1942), who was playing in the group ahead of Couples, was in first place after eight holes but when Floyd bogeyed (shot one over par) on the 12th hole, Couples was ahead by three. His lead immediately seemed in peril when his tee shot on No. 12 landed on a slope leading to a creek in front of the green. The ball was rolling toward the water when it improbably stopped. Instead of carding a likely bogey, Couples was able to par the hole, maintaining his three-stroke lead. He ended up winning by two, collecting $270,000 in prize money and donning the traditional green jacket worn by the winner. He was 32. His photo was on the cover of that week's Sports Illustrated with a headline that said, "On Top of the World."

Personal Problems, Back Pains

Couples cooled slightly in the second half of 1992, winning no more PGA Tour events but still ending up atop the money list with $1,344,188. He also repeated as the Vardon Trophy winner, this time averaging 69.38 strokes per round, and once again was named PGA Player of the Year. In November alone he collected more than $750,000 in non-tour appearances. But his two-year reign was not without troubles. For one thing, the added attention brought on by his success weighed on him. In interviews he was polite but uncomfortable. "It's been difficult, a bit much," Couples was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. "After Augusta, it was just a mob scene. I like to be treated like an ordinary person, because I am ordinary. I don't say I'm the best player. I try to go the other way. I try to downplay everything" ("Couples Is Remaining ...").

Meanwhile, his marriage was in shambles. He and Deborah had separated and were in the beginnings of a prolonged and highly publicized legal battle. She had filed for divorce in October 1992. The case dragged on for a year. Among details reported in the press were her collecting a monthly allowance of $52,000 until the dispute could be resolved and her lawyer estimating a final bill of $750,000. Deborah Couples had become prominent in the Palm Beach, Florida, polo scene, and Fred claimed her spending on the sport, a reported $300,000 in 1992, contributed to their break-up. He described the divorce as "like a death in the family. ... I think about it all the time on the golf course" ("Fred Couples and the Ex-Factor").

The case finally was settled out of court in October 1993, and Couples reverted to his early 1992 form. In the year's final three months, he won three non-tour events, was second in three others, and picked up nearly $1.2 million in prize money. Despite that strong finish, he called 1993 "a wasted year" ("Golden Boy, Golden Bear").

Around the same time he began having back pains, a problem that became chronic. A herniated disc waylaid him in 1994, causing him to miss 97 days of the PGA Tour. At the same time his mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer; she died on Mother's Day. Couples' back continued to plague him, although he managed to play well at times, including winning the Players Championship again in 1996. His father died of leukemia on Thanksgiving Day, 1997. That same year, his new girlfriend and future wife, Los Angeles art dealer Thais Baker (1962-2009), was being treated for cancer.

The next year brought relief. Couples won the first tour event, the Bob Hope Classic, ending a winless stretch of nearly two years. He finished second at the Masters. And in September he married Baker, whose cancer was in remission. (They were estranged when she died of the disease in 2009.)

Playing in Seattle

Couples did not live in Seattle after leaving for the University of Houston, choosing instead more golf-friendly climates -- southern California, Florida, and the Dallas area. He did, however, maintain numerous friendships dating back to his days at Jefferson Park. After winning the Masters, he thought about staging an annual tournament in the Seattle area with the idea of making a regular hometown appearance and raising money for local charities. In 1994 he launched the Ernst Invitational, which later became the Fred Couples Invitational and then the Boeing Classic, which was still being held in 2015. At each appearance, Couples was warmly cheered as a favored son.

He had an unprecedented opportunity to play in a Seattle-area tour event in 1998, when the PGA Championship was held at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish in eastern King County. Couples was third on the all-time money list with nearly $10.4 million in PGA earnings, and he was the easily the most popular player on the course. Followed by adoring crowds, he finished 13th. By then he had been a pro for 18 years. He went winless for the next four years, including 2001 when he had no top-10 finishes and was 131st on the PGA money list, the lowest ranking of his career. "I'm just not the player I was," he said ("Couples Struggles to Regain Form"). But he also had some highlights, including 2002 when he won $410,000 in a single day by taking the Par-3 Shootout portion of a Skins Game in Michigan. In 2003, his tour earnings were a career-best $1.82 million, and he won the Houston Open. That was his 15th PGA victory, breaking a five-year winless string of 87 events. He wept with joy on the 18th green, a winner again, at last.

Couples continued to make big money in the ensuing years but won no more official events until 2010 when, at age 50, he was eligible for the senior circuit, the Champions Tour. In his first year on that tour, he won four events and finished second in four others, including the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee. His Champions Tour earnings that year were $2,345,000, coming in addition to nearly $400,000 from PGA Tour events. He already was a fixture representing the United States in international team competitions, having played in five Ryder Cups and four Presidents Cups. He also was a three-time captain of President Cup teams. By 2013 he had 11 Champions Tour victories and was in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Western Washington hosted another major tournament in 2015 when the U.S. Open was played at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, near Tacoma. Although easily the most accomplished golfer to come from the Pacific Northwest, Couples had not qualified for the 156-man field. His biggest recent triumphs were winning the Senior Players Championship in 2011 and the U.S. Senior Open in 2012. Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone argued in print that Couples should be given an exemption and allowed to play in the Open:

"There's always been something endearing about Couples. It goes beyond the sheer power that earned him the nickname 'Boom Boom.' It goes beyond, even, his glittering resume  ... There is an every-man quality to Couples. He exudes cool but does so in an unforced manner.  ... In what sets up as a feel-good week for Northwest golf, nothing would make this region feel better than to bring Fred Couples into the U.S. Open field" ("Let Him Tee It Up").

It didn't happen, even with six openings still available, but Couples had much in the way of consolation. In 35 years as a pro, he had 163 top-10 finishes in PGA Tour events and another 44 in six years on the Champions Tour. His combined tour wins numbered 26, with earnings of nearly $30.4 million. He was widely popular, nowhere more than in his hometown. And even with a balky back, he was still playing and making money at the game he loved.

Sources: Dan Raley, "Just Fred," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 16, 1992, p. D-1; Raley, "Coming Home," Ibid., August 6, 1998, p. C-1; Raley, "Ten Years After Masters Win, Couples Retools," Ibid., April 9, 2002, p. C-1; Raley, "Couples Struggles to Regain Form," Ibid., August 14, 2002; Kathleen Bissell, Fred Couples, Golf's Reluctant Superstar (Lincolnwood, Illinois: Contemporary Books, 1999); Hugo Kugiya, "The Couples Conundrum," The Seattle Times, July 20, 1997, Pacific Magazine, p. 12; John Peoples, "Remembering His Golfing Roots," Ibid., July 28, 1994, p. C-1; Mark Johnson, "All the Motivation of Melted Ice Cream," Ibid., June 5, 1988, p. B-2; "Couples Captures First Win in 5 Years," Ibid., April 28, 2003, p. D-1; Larry Stone, "Let Him Tee It Up," Ibid., June 11, 2015, p. C-1; Jaime Diaz, "Sneaking Up on Stardom," Sports Illustrated, January 7, 1985 (; Rick Reilly, "Bank Shot," Ibid., April 20, 1992; Diaz, "Golden Boy, Golden Bear," Ibid., January 17, 1994; John Nelson, "All of a Sudden, Fred Couples, at 32, is Best in the World," Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1992, p. C-7; Jaime Diaz, "Fittingly, Couples Wins Green Jacket," New York Times, April 13, 1992, p. C-1; Diaz, "Couples Is Remaining Right on Course," Ibid., November 29, 1992, p. A-11; Diaz, "Fred Couples and the Ex-Factor," Ibid., March 17, 1993, p. B-11; Larry Dorman, "Couples Plans Return One Swing at a Time," Ibid., June 5, 1994, A-13.

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