The right guy is leading the Constellation Seniors Players Championship after three rounds. That's no knock at Joe Daley, who won the event a year ago at Fox Chapel Golf Club. It's also no slap at Kenny Perry, who has put together consecutive, stunning, record-setting rounds of 7-under 63 and is in second place going into the final round this morning on that same exquisite piece of Fox Chapel real estate. It's a tribute to Fred Couples, who leads Perry by two strokes after making birdies Saturday on three of his final five holes. He is the man.
Perry opined that Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Nick Price, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw are the Champions Tour. "They carried the sword for us. They're icons. They're Hall of Famers. They're what people want to come see." I would beg to disagree, no offense to the great Watson and the others. Couples is the big draw these days. You could see it in his following the past three days on the rain-soaked, muddy course. It's his charisma. It's his ability to consistently strike the ball as long as anyone on the tour. It's the fact that he's remained relevant at 53 and with a bad back to the point that he still can hang with the young fellows in the big events on the PGA Tour, at least for a significant part of a tournament. He was tied for second at 5 under after two rounds of the Masters in April and trailed leader Jason Day by just one shot before finishing respectably in a tie for 13th.
Couples won 15 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1992 Masters. He has been remarkably consistent on the Champions Tour with 31 top-10 finishes in 44 events. But he has had a hard time winning of late. The most recent of his eight Champions Tour titles came 11 months ago at the Senior British Open Championship. This year, he has three seconds and two fourths in his six Tour starts. He lost by one tough stroke to David Frost at the Regions Tradition in early June and by one to Craig Stadler at the Encompass Championship last week.
Couples didn't need reminded of the near-misses but said he isn't dwelling on them. "I'm certainly not going to be thinking about second place tomorrow when I play. I'm well past that."
For a long time earlier in the weekend, it looked as if Couples would cruise to the championship. He had 13 birdies in 29 holes when his second round was interrupted by rain Friday. He came back early Saturday to play his final seven second-round holes and made one more birdie to take a four-shot lead into the third round.
Then, suddenly, it all seemed to go away for Couples.
The big lead.
All of it.
The birdies Couples made on Nos. 2 and 7 were offset by his bogeys on 3 and 10. He was even for his third round through 13 holes on a day when Perry and Bernhard Langer each shot 63. "It's just a shame we've had all that rain," Perry said. "That's why the scores are so good. People are throwing a lot of darts out there."
Couples knew he was wasting a great scoring day because of the soft greens but didn't panic even after Perry passed him by a stroke with a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 14. Couples finally joined the fun with his own birdie on 14, rolling in a 25-footer and holding his arms out in apparent disbelief. He took the lead again with a 20-footer on No. 15, this time adding a fist-pump for emphasis. He built the lead to two strokes by getting up and down from the short left side of the green on No. 18.
"He's so cool it's amazing," Perry said of Couples. "The ball's in his court."
"If I go out and play well tomorrow, I have a great shot at winning," Couples acknowledged. He has led or been tied for the lead going into the final round seven times in his Champions Tour career and won five times, including the Senior Players Championship in 2011. That surely has to give a guy a little confidence.
Couples said his Saturday night was planned. His back always is a consideration.
"I played 25 holes today. I'm tired. I'm going to go back and kick my feet up. We already have food ordered ...
"Hopefully, I'll feel good in the morning and come out strong."
That's a wonderful thought, not just for Couples, but for the Champions Tour and the golf fans who will come out to Fox Chapel this morning.
No disrespect to Perry, of course.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM