Forty years ago, four suitemates at the University of Houston stayed up late listening to radio snippets from the city’s professional athletes and unwittingly inspiring one another to similar heights.
Fred Couples and John Horne shared one bedroom, Jim Nantz and Blaine McCallister the other. All four lettered on the Cougars’ golf team. Three went on to compete on the PGA Tour, with Couples winning the 1992 Masters and earning a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Couples and McCallister are still playing; McCallister on the 50-and-over circuit, Couples on both tours. Nantz became the voice of CBS Sports, starting at the network in 1985, and Horne is a PGA professional in Plainview, Texas.
As Couples prepared to be honored as the 2019 Ambassador of Golf on Thursday during the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at Firestone Country Club, he and Nantz reflected on the atmosphere fostered among the suitemates before Couples turned pro after his junior season in 1980. Couples believes Nantz was the catalyst, calling him “a perfect fit,” but Nantz said they fed off each other.
“I think it was possible because there was a lot of positive energy going on down there in our dorm room at the University of Houston,” Nantz said in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we all kind of lifted each other on our shoulders and made us think the world was there to do whatever you wanted to do if you worked hard enough.
“We were a band of believers.”
They also rehearsed for the future when Nantz returned from his part-time job at a local radio station. They would listen to audio recordings from Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard, Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell, Rick Barry and Moses Malone and pump Nantz about what those stars were like. Later, when Nantz became the weekend anchor at the CBS television affiliate, he began interviewing Couples, McCallister and Horne.
Nantz said he told Couples, “ ‘You’re going to win the Masters one day, let’s rehearse the green jacket ceremony.’ We probably did it a couple times. I can’t find that cassette tape; it might be in the attic of my mother’s home in Houston. Boy, would that be priceless?”
The two re-created that scene in the Butler Cabin when Couples recorded his lone major victory on the PGA Tour.
“It’s so bizarre, but at the time, I don’t know what everyone thought. I don’t know if they thought Jim Nantz would be one of the best TV personalities ever in sports or that Blaine or myself or John Horne would play the PGA Tour,” Couples said in a phone interview last month. “Mostly we had a blast listening to his radio snippets. It was a very interesting three years.”
Couples, 59, has 15 PGA Tour triumphs, which also included the 1984 Players Championship that brought him a valuable 10-year exemption, and won 13 times on the Champions tour. As he competes at Firestone for the first time since the 2006 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, he has earned over $33 million since 1981.
But it wasn’t just the victories that made Couples a fan favorite virtually since he arrived on tour.
“With a lot of people like that, it’s hard to put your finger on what attracts people to them,” Couples’ close friend Jay Haas said during the Bridgestone Senior Players media day May 13. “Certainly, he’s got the game and the seeming ease of golf, how he makes it look out there while he’s just casually strolling the fairways and shooting low scores. He’s a friend to so many of the players. The fans just seem to gravitate to him.
“He has ‘it,’ whatever that is. Arnold had it. Tiger has it, Fred has it. It’s just something about his magnetism that the people just love and love to see him do well.”
The 2018 Ambassador of Golf winner, Nantz believes part of Couples’ allure comes from his “boy next door” persona.
“He’s always had time for people,” Nantz said. “He definitely popularized the sport, as beloved as anybody you can find in the game. There’s a charm and a connection that people have with Fred that they feel like they know him.
“He’s lived with that since he first came out on the tour, there was a boyishness that brought a certain amount of charm and magnetism to Fred’s popularity. People always want to look after Fred. Fred is not a diva. If I ever was in his company, he’s not too big to be unapproachable. He’s one of us. He’s a common guy and he has that aura about him.”
Haas said he and Couples have stayed together many times on the road, although Haas admitted he has to do all the driving.
“He doesn’t like to drive, so you’ve got to chauffeur him around a little bit,” Haas said. “That’s OK because I like to drive. I like to be in control, so it was a good match.
“He’s a funny guy. He doesn’t talk about golf hardly ever. He’s not about himself. If you ask him about some tournament he played well in, he’ll go, ‘Yeah,’ and then quickly change the subject and talk about the Mariners or the Astros or a hockey game.”
Like Haas, Nantz appreciates Couples’ sense of humor and his ability to listen.
“Fred is one of the smartest guys I know and he plays that role really well like he doesn’t act like he knows what’s going on,” Nantz said. “The old ‘dumb as a fox’ guy. He really understands people and has a much keener sense of business. Early in his career, [it was] the old ‘He didn’t pick up the phone because there might be somebody on the other end.’ That’s the allure of Fred. He sounds like he can’t organize his own wake-up call.”
Nantz said Couples has the personality of his father, Thomas, who worked in the Seattle parks and recreation department and introduced his son to the game. Thomas Couples died of leukemia in 1997, three years after Couples’ mother Violet died of cancer.
“His dad was a soft-spoken guy and not confrontational, kind of laid back and would let the conversation come to him, but would absorb everything that was being said,” Nantz said. “Fred does a lot of listening; he’s a great listener. You kind of breeze along through life and act like, ‘I don’t pay any attention to that stuff.’ All the while, you’re internalizing all that information and data and you have it if you need it. He can give you some incredibly brilliant thoughts and strategy on all subject matter, not just sports.”
Couples isn’t sure whether the perception that he’s nonchalant is a negative or a positive, or if it’s part of his appeal.
“I don’t wear a golf glove. A lot times you look at a guy when they’re not doing well, it’s the way they take their glove off and rip it off,” Couples said. “I’m always tugging on my clothes. I always thought Payne Stewart had a few gyrations, too, and I loved, loved Payne Stewart. I tug at my shirt, as I got older, a lot of twitches. The nonchalant part, I never walked to my ball and stood still like a Tom Watson, I always had to move to try and stay loose.
“Once you get a label, loosey goosey or he doesn’t feel pressure, let me tell you, I feel pressure as much as some other guy. … I handled it well a lot and I butchered a lot of tournaments.”
Couples said the key to his success was his ability to quickly put aside the bad days on the course.
“I always said, ‘I’m fine, just let me get in my car.’ As soon as I started the car, I was immediately away from what just happened,” he said. “I could be so upset standing on the 18th green watching a guy two-putt to beat me, go into the locker room, be crazy mad and then get in the car and it was like, ‘What’s going on?’ as I started to drive away. I really think that helped me a lot.”
Couples said he often talks to other players about how to let the tour’s stresses go.
“I tell guys all the time, ‘You’ve got to stop worrying about it. You’re not going to play well every week, 25 weeks a year for 30 years,’ ” Couples said. “You’ve got to earn the respect of yourself, not anyone else, maybe your teacher, to turn this around and start playing better.’ No one is just going to flash a wand and say, ‘I had four bad weeks in a row, now I’m going to play well.’ That’s what I tried to instill in myself.”
That nonchalant persona also extended to Couples’ game, or at least fans’ perception of his game.
“He has an ease about his swing. What we all say is ‘effortless power,’ ” Haas said. “He doesn’t look like he’s swinging hard at all, but when it’s measured, it’s tremendous speed, clubhead speed, ball speed, all that.”
Haas said his teacher Billy Harmon, the younger brother of Couples’ (and Tiger Woods’ and Phil Mickelson’s) one-time coach Butch Harmon, has a term “golfing genius” that Haas said applies to Couples.
“We were going to do a 15-minute clinic before an event. I said, ‘We’ve got to talk to ’em, what do we tell ’em?’ He said, ‘We got to tell ’em how to hook it, how to fade it, how to hit it high, how to hit it low,’ ” Haas said of Couples. “I said, ‘How do you hit it high, Fred?’ He said, ‘I just look high.’ I said, ‘That will take four seconds. We’ve got to think of some other stuff to tell these people.’
“But that’s kind of the way he is. People say, ‘Can you draw that scene right there?’ I just do it. That’s just him. He’s just a golfing genius, I think.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.