Fred Couples of the U.S tees off on the 15th hole during a practice round ahead of the British Open golf championship at Muirfield in Scotland on Wednesday. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
GULLLANE, Scotland, — He is not quite the young apprentice but Fred Couples will be looking and learning when he partners Muirfield masters Tom Watson and Nick Faldo in the British Open first round on Thursday.
Unlike his playing partners, the 53-year-old American has never lifted the Claret Jug and on his only previous appearance at the famous Muirfield links in 1987 he finished 40th.
But he said it is never too old to learn new tricks.
“I think it’s a unique pairing,” the laid-back Couples, whose easy smile and laid-back demeanour make him a favourite wherever he plays, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I know their track record round here is great so I’m going to try and follow them around, hit the shots they hit and see if I can hit them better than I normally do. Otherwise it will be a long week.”
Couples is three years younger than Faldo, who won two of his three British Opens at Muirfield, and Watson, who came within a missed putt of an astonishing sixth title four years ago is approaching his 64th birthday.
“It’ll seem like 1980 all over again,” said Couples, whose one major triumph came at Augusta in 1992.
“I like Nick, he is one of my favourite players and I’ve been paired with him in the Open many times. It’s going to be most fun just listening to those guys talk about their records here at Muirfield,” he added.
Couples is teeing it up at the British Open for the first time since missing the cut at Hoylake in 2006 having qualified by winning the Senior Open last year.
He could barely contain his enthusiasm as he joined in with the banter on the practice range.
He said the first thing he did when he won the Senior Open at Turnberry was book a room at the idyllic Greywalls Hotel near Gullane — deep in the heart of Scotland’s golfing heritage.
“I missed it in 2002 when Ernie (Els) won, the year of the big storm, I didn’t have a part of that,” he said.
“But it’s an amazing tournament on a great course and I feel glad to be here. The first thing I did was get a room at Greywalls so I could relax and hang out and plan on playing all the time. If you don’t like this golf you shouldn’t really play.
“Augusta since I won there, it’s my favourite tournament but my favourite tournament I never won is The Open.”
Couples plays mostly on the Champions Tour these days but 13th place at this year’s Masters, where he made the cut for a record 24th time, showed that he can still mix it with the young big hitters who he says it’s “fun to watch”.
Third-place finishes at the Open in 1991 and 2005 and two fourth places prove he knows how to get around a links course.
“I had a few chances, played a lot of times but it’s the greatest golf around,” he said. “It’s so much fun to hit a four iron one day 150 yards and the next day hit the same club 250 yards. It takes a lot of time to figure that out.
“There will be a lot of young players who go home and say ‘Wow, what happened out there’!”
“It’s fun to watch these guys play, the young guys. I don’t play in our U.S. Open any more and to play in the Masters every year is a treat but to watch these guys play is great.”
Couples has a warning for those players who he says “hit it a mile” - even if the wind, as forecast, does not blow too hard.
“The toughest thing this week, because I hear the wind is not going to blow, is the bunkers,” said Couples, who will be assistant captain to Watson in the 2014 Ryder Cup.
“There is a lot of sand in the traps and if you make a huge mistake you’ll bury your ball and it will become a struggle.
“No wind gives us all a little break where you don’t have to hit too many drivers and you can get it around, but it’s still a great golf course.
“A good ball striker will do really well here but you have to have a good imagination. That’s why the Watsons and the Faldos have done well here in the past.
“They are both great putters too. People don’t realise what a great putter Nick Faldo was. He used to make every five-foot putt when he needed to.”
Couples said whoever wins the title on Sunday will have to finish with a special round of golf.
“I started a lot of fourth rounds close and then played mediocre,” Couples said. “I never had a really bad last day but you can’t have a mediocre last day and win this thing.
“I was always pretty close and played steady which wasn’t good enough. If you watch the guys who win they do that little extra push at the end. I had my chances and never did it.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)