Rabid sports fan Fred Couples raised the 12th Man flag at the Seattle Seahawks "Monday Night Football" game against the New Orleans Saints in 2013. He has been known to text his former University of Houston teammate and suitemate Jim Nantz to find out what is going on when Nantz is broadcasting a football or basketball game for CBS.
But when Couples attended LeBron James’ regular-season home debut with the Los Angeles Lakers last Oct. 21, Couples was more interested in what the four-time NBA MVP was doing on the bench than on the court.
In a recent phone interview as he prepared to receive the Ambassador of Golf award Thursday in his return to Firestone Country Club for the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, Couples said he can often learn more about outstanding athletes during their breaks from competition.
“When I usually go to sporting events, whether its basketball in the old days to see Michael Jordan or hockey, I watch the puck and I watch the play, but a lot of times I look at what someone’s doing on the bench,” Couples said on June 18. “For LeBron, [it was] when they took him out.
“When you’re on the golf course ... it’s the idle time. I don’t watch much golf, on TV you only see them swinging. You can learn about what a guy’s doing while he’s standing there. In sports, I like to see what a guy’s doing, whether he’s engaged or whether he could care less or whether he’s very relaxed. LeBron didn’t want to go out.”
Couples said he went to Staples Center that night with girlfriend Suzanne Radcliffe, whose father John ran the Lakers’ scorers table for 49 years and has his name emblazoned on it. Couples said they stayed to talk to those she knew, including members of the radio and television crews. But the draw was James.
“I don’t know LeBron. We’re both members at a spot in Cabo [San Lucas] and I’d seen his kids there one time. I hear all the great things about him,” Couples said. “So when he came I looked at Suzanne and said, ‘Let’s go see his first game here to see what it’s all about.’ Then a fight broke out between Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, so we get more than we bargained for.”
Asked what he gleaned from James that night, Couples drifted toward the Lakers’ 37-45 season, which included James playing in only 55 games after suffering a groin injury in a Christmas Day victory over the Golden State Warriors.
“Towards the end of the year there were some things we could be critical [of], he was kind of not engaged, but not in a [crappy] way, just in a way that was different because he’s still our guy,” Couples said. “I don’t think he should be turned on for 24 hours a day and when you’re losing a lot and you’ve got young players …”
Couples said that was the only Lakers game they attended, although they probably would have gone had the Lakers made the playoffs.
“I’m sure we’ll go this year,” Couples said. “I’m a big LeBron guy, I love the Lakers and Clippers; I don’t go to many of their games. I’m more of a baseball guy.”
Couples, 59, did find one similarity between himself and James, 34, in that they both enjoy texting and talking to younger players.
“LeBron is interactive with everybody. I can only hit a couple junior players at my club,” said Couples, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. “But the guys on the tour, when I sense a guy’s got a lot of talent and he’s got a lot of moxie, it’s very easy to text and get a little rapport and get him wound up. That’s why I like these President’s Cup captains and being an assistant.
“I’m not going to tell them anything; they already know everything. You can’t go tell a guy, ‘Hey, go get ‘em today’ or ‘We really need this point.’ So I try to work my way in different ways. I enjoy the younger generation.”
Although he hasn't competed at Firestone since the 2006 World Golf Championships - Bridgestone Invitational, Couples was a regular during the days of the NEC World Series of Golf, finishing in the top 10 five times in his first nine appearances in that event. His favorite story comes from the 1998 tournament, when he and Nick Price exchanged caddies on the driving range when Price’s third-round tee time was about four minutes away.
As Price’s caddie Jimmy Johnson told the Beacon Journal in 2001, he was waiting on the fringe of the putting green when he overheard Couples and his caddie Joe LaCava [now on Tiger Woods’ bag] jawing at each other.
"Joey said to Freddie, 'C'mon, man, you're letting this club pro beat you,' " Johnson said then. "Freddie says, 'I've had enough of you. Why don't you go find another job for today?’ "
"I don't think they would have done it if they'd been in contention.”
“We were on the range and let’s just say there were 50 players playing, we were only beating 10 or 15 people,” Couples recalled. “A lot of times I look at my caddie and say, ‘What are you looking at?’ or ‘What’s your problem?’ This time I said, ‘Let’s change caddies’ and [LaCava] was the one who said immediately, ‘Yeah, let’s change.’ It’s just an attitude thing and fun, but I never thought it would ever happen. I know we both played really, really good rounds that day, then went back to our old caddies.’
In the third round, Couples shot 65, Price 68. In the final round, Couples fired a 75 and tied for 24th, while Price shot 70 and tied for 21st.
Age takes toll
Turning pro in 1980, Couples has seen his career limited by back pain, but now he’s also dealing with vision problems.
“When I’m driving and I look straight, when I play golf and I’m walking, I see everything,” Couples said. “But when I put my head down and turn to look at the hole when I’m on that swivel, I’m really struggling with my right, with one of my eyes, and it’s just hard to putt.
“When I stand behind the putt and both eyes are staring at the ball and the hole, I read the putts perfectly. But when I get over it, then the tilt of my head, I just lose a little depth perception and the feel of what the putt’s going to do. I know it’s a cup to the right of the hole, I just can’t get the ball to go there nine out of 10 times.”
Couples took two months off to regroup before he plays at Firestone, the Senior British Open, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Classic and the Boeing Classic on the Champions tour, along with the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open in Napa, Calif. But despite his physical issues, Couples is not ready to retire.
“I can play four times next year and drive to every tournament, so I’m not going to quit golf. But I don’t want to go to the range in January and say, ‘This is going to be a big year and I’m going to bust my tail and kill myself to have a good year,’” Couples said. “I physically can’t do it.
“If I just went out and played when my body felt good, I could have no problem in still playing well. But I don’t feel as good as I did three, four, five years ago, either, so it’s all an age and a back thing. I’m more than fine with it. I refuse to go travel around for the 41st year and play mediocre golf. I’m not going to do that.”
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