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Couples and Masters _ still a great pairing

Fred Couples is spotting the kid leading the Masters five strokes and 30 years. He hasn't won at Augusta in nearly two decades, or anywhere else on the PGA Tour in eight years. Still, you have to like his odds, especially here.

Maybe that's because Couples plays this place as if he owns it, or because he was just a little older than Rory McIlroy and playing his fourth Masters in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus turned conventional wisdom inside out and donned a sixth green jacket at 46, nearly a dozen years after he'd won his last one.

If that feat was "unbelievable," someone asked Couples after his second round Friday, "what would this be if you did it?"

"Retiring, is what it would be," Couples replied to laughter. "I would be gone."

He's 51 now, something you're reminded of every time he doffs his ballcap to reveal a head of shaggy hair gone gray, or twists side to side between shots from the fairway to loosen up a chronically troublesome back. Yet the guy still looks so cool strolling the grounds you'd think he just put down a cocktail on the patio, picked up his clubs and wandered into the middle of the tournament.

"It would be scary if he was healthy," playing partner Steve Stricker said. "Because there's a couple shots out there where he hit and groaned, you know. Downhill lies, I think, really bother him a lot, where he has to really stay in there a long time. And I heard a couple groans come out of him.

"So he's playing hurt. That's what's even more impressive," Stricker added. "If he was healthy, how good could he be still?"

Couples figures he's played Augusta National some 200 times, which if nothing else, means he knows where not to be. He's not as long as he used to be, either — the nickname "Boom Boom" fell away years ago — but still plenty long enough. Then there's that temperament.

He's so laid back that Couples once famously said he rarely answered the phone at home because "I get the feeling whenever I do that there will be someone on the other end." The last time he made a serious run at a second Masters title was five years ago. After a three-putt bogey from four feet at No. 14 dropped him into an eventual tie for third, Couples said with a straight face, "I'm a lot older than I was when I was 30, which is kind of hard to believe."

The only thing hard to believe these days is that he will be able to play the last two rounds as well as he did the first two. The prospect hardly rattles him. At this place, he practically floats along on a wave of goodwill. Women in the gallery still scream as if he were George Clooney in a polo shirt. Yet Couples rarely takes note. You could slap a blood-pressure cuff on him in those moments and the number might be half his final score.

"Here," Couples said, "I would be playing even as a cripple. I love this place," he said, pausing long enough to blush. "I shouldn't say that; as a guy with a horrible back, I would get it around. I did it a couple of years."

As proof of that, or maybe just because his mind was wandering, Couples took a few moments out of his day to bend down and snatch a pine cone or broken branch off the manicured fairways and toss it into the rough.

The greenskeeping was a far cry from how Couples felt about Augusta National early in his career, when he complained it was "the hardest golf course I had ever played." The turf was so unyielding, Couples said back then, that he never had to fix even one ball mark. "There weren't any," he said.

Now, he stops frequently to take in every nuance, even in practice rounds. He recalled playing one of those with Phil Mickelson in 2006, the year the powerful left-hander won his second green jacket, and marveling at how he worked his way around the course.

"It's a playground for Phil ... and he has a great imagination, so when he gets in these places, he gets very excited to have these difficult shots. Whereas for me," Couples said, "I get excited when those difficult shots are over and I've kept it somewhere out of a creek or somewhere else."

Someone pointed out that when Mickelson arrived this week, he said the place "re-energized" him, then asked, "How would you describe it?"

"Well," Couples said after a moment's reflection, "I'm not ever energized. But I do wait the whole year to come and play here."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org