WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Fred Couples couldn't have asked for a better start to his Champions Tour career, right up until last week.
Couples won three of his first six events on the senior circuit and was poised to grab another big check at the Senior PGA Championship last Sunday. After posting back-to-back eagles on the 15th and 16th holes, all Couples needed to do was knock down a makable birdie putt to claim his first Champions Tour major.
A strong wind gust kicked up, though, and Couples missed the kind of putt he's made all year. His drive on the first hole of a playoff flew into some bushes and Tom Lehman walked away with the win.
Couples will try to bounce back this weekend at the Principal Charity Classic in West Des Moines, his first trip to Iowa since missing the cut at the PGA Tour's Quad Cities Open in 1981. He will be a fan favorite in his debut at the Glen Oaks Country Club, which could help him erase the sting of last weekend's disappointment.
"It was very disappointing not to win last week, but someone's going to win and someone's going to lose," Couples said. "I felt like I threw away some strokes trying to do, maybe, do a few too many things. Whereas this week, you have to be aggressive, you have to, obviously, hit the ball well to do well in any tournament. But I'm looking forward to playing well, and it's been a great year so far."
A year ago here, Mark McNulty, Fred Funk and Nick Price matched up in the first three-man playoff in the tournament's history. Price bowed out after only making par on the second playoff hole, and McNulty won with a 30-foot left-to-right birdie putt on the fourth extra hole.
McNulty's not here, though, after knee replacement surgery last month. Neither is Lehman, who skipped Iowa for the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament in Ohio.
The focus on this year's tournament will be on a pair of Glen Oaks rookies in Couples and Bernhard Langer, his main competition for the senior circuit title.
Langer has already won two events this year, while Couples has already earned more than $1.2 million in just seven events and leads the Champions Tour in both driving distance and putting average.
"The putting is way more important. If I could have given up yardage in years gone by and putted better, I would have won a lot more tournaments," Couples said. "I've been putting well all year and I hope it continues."
Don't count out Price, either.
Price led after two rounds in both 2008 and 2009 before falling agonizingly short. But he's posted six straight sub-par scores at Glen Oaks, a par-71 course ranked 12th toughest on the Champions Tour in each of the past two seasons.
Jay Haas, who helped persuade Couples to make the trip to Iowa last fall, has to be considered a contender despite a winless season. Haas overcame a three-stroke deficit on the back nine to beat Price in the final round at Iowa two years ago, and he's still the only golfer to win the tournament twice (2007-08).
This should be one of the stronger non-majors of the year, despite the absence of Lehman and McNulty, with eight of the circuit's top 10 money leaders scheduled to play.
The focus will be on Couples, who finished sixth at this year's Masters and will no doubt fire up an Iowa crowd getting its first chance to cheer him on in nearly 30 years.
"I know I'm going to play well. The bottom line is, if I can go out and hit the ball solid and hit a lot of greens, I should be up there on Sunday," Couples said.