The 12th of Never: This Masters marks 20 years since Fred Couples did the impossible


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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are any number of mandates to be adhered to at Augusta National Golf Club, especially during the Masters. No running. No tipping. Don't order a beer and expect anything other than "domestic or import" for your choices. And smell the azaleas in Amen Corner, where beauty never takes a mulligan.

On the course, the rules of engagement apply, too. Don't try to fly the right bunker on No. 1. Don't miss the green right on No. 3. Miss the green right at 11. And never, ever fire at the pin at the par-3 12th when it's behind the front bunker.

Oh yeah, and one other: Don't ever expect the ball to stop on the shaved slope on No. 12 and stay out of Rae's Creek, where so many Masters dreams have come to die.

Unless you are Fred Couples.

"The biggest break I ever got," Couples said, the words coming out just as they did 20 years ago.

In the final round of the 1992 Masters, holding a one-shot lead, Couples took dead aim at the pin on No. 12, the middle jewel of the Amen Corner trilogy, and tried to hit a soft cut -- his bread-and-butter shot -- over the front bunker. For most players on the PGA Tour, hitting a green 155 yards away is as simple as eating a bowl of cereal. If you gave them 100 balls, 99 would land inside 15 feet of the pin.

But this isn't any green, and the Masters isn't any tournament. The wind in Amen Corner has more swirls than Angelina Jolie's hair, and picking the right club is sometimes like picking the winning lottery number. That's why balls on that beastly little beauty sometime get airmailed into the azaleas and shrubs behind the green or plunk into Rae's Creek with the same sickening sound as a diamond ring dropping into a sink drain.

"For people who are players, you think, 'I got to hit a good shot here,' " Couples said. "For me, I was very, very nervous. I was trying to hit it over the bunker, which is really not something I like to do. There are smart shots -- I should have aimed way left and cut [the ball] into the bunker. Back then, everything was a hard cut or a soft cut.

"But for me to aim at bunker ... any player, when their eyes go somewhere, that's where they swing to. When you're playing and there's water to the right and you see it, your body goes at the trouble. That's probably true in life, too. It was over soon as I hit the ball."

Twenty years later, everyone can still see the ball landing on the bank ... and stopping.

Over the years, the ball didn't stop for Ben Hogan. It didn't stop for Gene Sarazen. Tom Weiskopf hit five balls into Rae's Creek in 1980, en route to making a 13 -- the highest score ever recorded on that hole.

But it stopped for Couples, miraculously enough. One more roll. A breath of freshening wind. A bent blade of grass. Another millimeter on the mower. Anything. One more dimple rotation and Couples would have found what Henry Longhurst, the longtime British writer and commentator, referred to as a "watery grave."

"The ball hit so far down on the bank, it didn't pick up any momentum," Couples said.

Instead, the ball found what must have been the only tiny flat spot on the slippery embankment -- like finding Babe Ruth's bat in your uncle's attic. When the ball stopped, so did the collective breath of the gallery in Amen Corner, fearing one giant exhale might nudge the ball into the creek.

Thirteen years later, a television audience would watch the Nike swoosh on Tiger Woods' ball hang for several seconds on the lip at No. 16, only to roll one more rotation into the hole. It was a moment when time appeared to stand still and announcer Verne Lundquist screamed, "In your life, have you seen anything like that?"

But, in 1992, the last revolution never came for Couples. It was as though Weiskopf's hand came out of Rae's Creek and said, "Far enough."

"What a nice break to go play the ball," Couples was saying the other day on the phone, recalling the moment he gets asked about more times than any other event in his life. "I didn't stand there and say what a bad swing or what a great break. You just go play the hole. If it trickled down in the water, maybe I could have doubled there and got birdie somewhere else."

There has always been magic in the air at Augusta National for the player known as Boom-Boom. It was there in 1992, when he held off Raymond Floyd and Corey Pavin to win his only major championship by two shots, and nobody would be surprised if it somehow managed to conjure again -- on the 20th anniversary -- when the 76th Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National.

"Sometimes it seems like yesterday and sometimes it seems like 40 years ago," Couples said. "It was a lot of fun, an amazing week. I was playing so well, but there were other times I played well in a major and lost.

"I always felt that when most people win their major, they do it in a short window of time. It seems like they pop it pretty quickly, and my window of opportunity was there. I lost the PGA to Wayne Grady [in1990] and a couple British Opens I played well in. The fun thing for me at Augusta, I had other chances to win a lot later than 1992. That's why it's my favorite major."

Last year, at the age of 52, Couples tied for 15th. In 2010, he opened with a 66 to lead the tournament and ended up finishing sixth, seven shots behind winner Phil Mickelson, four behind England's Lee Westwood and two behind Tiger Woods -- three of the best players in the world. In 2006, he and Mickelson were paired together in the final round and put on a shot-making duel until Couples' putter went south. He finished third, three shots behind Mickelson.

That, though, is not uncommon for Couples, not at Augusta.

Consider: Of all the players who have played 100 or more rounds in the Masters, who has the best scoring average?

Couples.

His 71.90 in 104 rounds is better than six-time champion Jack Nicklaus (71.98). Tom Watson, who won two green jackets and finished second three other times, is third at 72.39.

What's more, Couples has 11 top-10 finishes at the Masters and shares the record for most consecutive cuts made (23) with three-time champion Gary Player.

His good vibes for the place will be enhanced even more because he is coming off a victory last month in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic -- his first Champions Tour victory of 2012 and seventh since joining the 50-and-over circuit in 2010.

"Augusta has a lot of crazy things happen because it has an unbelievable back nine, but it also has the history," Couples said. "I can't tell you one shot Tom Kite played when he won the U.S. Open [in 1992]. Oh, I remember he chipped in on the seventh hole because I've seen it a million times, but, at Augusta, you can still tell me what Tom Weiskopf did and what Hubert Green did on the 18th green years ago or what Johnny Miller did. That's why it is such an interesting week.

"I could talk about Augusta all day long because anyone who has ever been there goes there and flips out. It's my favorite week. I hope I feel decent to play another four or five years where I can go out and play because it's that much fun. Everything for me runs around Augusta. It did in the '90s and even the 2000s. I wanted to make sure everything I did, I was prepared for Augusta."

Even if nobody was prepared for what happened 20 years ago.

This week

• What: The 76th Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

• When: Thursday-Sunday.

• TV: ESPN (Thursday-Friday), KDKA (Saturday-Sunday).

• The skinny: Eight of the top 20 players in the world have won on the PGA Tour this season.

golf

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published April 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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