Rejuvenated Fred Couples claims first-round lead at Masters

By Larry Fine

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Playing the Champions Tour has made Fred Couples feel like a kid again and on Thursday the 50-year-old had a bounce in his step as he fired a 66 to lead the U.S. Masters after the first round.

The 1992 champion notched seven birdies and a lone bogey for his best score in 97 Masters rounds at Augusta National.

"To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe-dream," the easy going Couples told reporters. "Can I still win? Of course. It would be a nice dream, that's for sure, but I've got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention."

After working on his game prior to joining the senior tour this year, Couples regained his silky swing and rediscovered his putting touch.

He lost the opening Champions Tour event in Hawaii by one stroke to Tom Watson, then reeled off three successive wins.

"I'm the youngest guy out there," said Couples, who captained the U.S. team at last year's Presidents Cup before joining the Champions Tour.

"I feel like I'm a very good player, and I'm one of the guys to beat out there. And I think that's a good sign when you start winning."

Couples, plagued by a bad back over the years, wore some soft comfortable golf shoes with supports inside -- and no socks -- as he toured the fabled layout needing just 24 putts.

"I've had back problems a long time and I wear nothing but tennis shoes," Couples said.

"When I wear tennis shoes I usually don't wear socks. I just feel like they are like tennis shoes."

Couples led a charge of senior players on Thursday.

Two-times Masters champion Watson, 60, who lost in a playoff against Stewart Cink at last year's British Open, shot a bogey-free 67.

Briton Sandy Lyle, the 1988 winner, posted 69 while fellow 52-year-old Bernhard Langer of Germany, a two-time champion, shot a one-under 71.

"I'm leading the tournament at the moment but there's a bunch of five-unders up there," said Couples, whose closest challengers include Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood of Britain and South Koreans KJ Choi and Yang Yong-eun.

"It's a lot of pressure to be leading and we'll see what happens."

(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Ian Ransom)