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Saturday, April 10, 2010
Couples lurking at Augusta at 7 under

Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Fred Couples twisted one way, then the other, wincing as he tried to loosen up his aching back. It's moments like this that make the 50-year-old feel twice his age.

Get him to the Masters, however, and he plays like he's half his age.

Four years after playing in the final group, Couples is lurking again at Augusta National. His 4-under 68 on Saturday puts him five strokes behind leader Lee Westwood and four behind Phil Mickelson -- pretty good for a guy more accustomed to tearing up the Champions Tour these days.

"I know time flies, but [Sunday] I have a shot," Couples said. "I'm way behind, but I've heard other people talk about it, so I might as well say the same thing. If I can shoot a low score, I maybe can post a score and see what happens."

A few more shots like he had on 14 and 15 would help.

He put his approach shot to about 3 feet on 14 and tapped in for a birdie. As he left the 14th tee, Couples motioned to Mickelson, playing in the group behind him, to get it going. Did Lefty ever, eagling the par-5 13 and then holing out from the 14th fairway for another eagle.

"I wanted that golf ball that he holed in at 14. That's what I wanted," Couples said. "He couldn't hear me, but I wanted that eagle ball."

Instead, he got one of his own.

He flew the green with his second shot on the par-5 15th, leaving him at least 30 feet to the hole. He made a perfect chip and the ball rolled straight at the hole, the noise level rising the closer the ball got to the cup. When it rolled in, the crowd roared and Couples shook his fist.

Fans in all three grandstands around 15 gave him a standing ovation, and Couples took off his hat and waved.

"I just love this place," he said. "I have a shot [Sunday] if I can shoot a crazy score."

And wouldn't that be something for the senior set?

Kenny Perry was two holes away from breaking Nicklaus' record as the oldest winner at Augusta National last year. Tom Watson gave fans of all ages a real treat at the British Open at Turnberry, leading much of the tournament before faltering down the stretch.

"I picked [Couples] and Westwood this week," Watson said. "I like the way Couples is playing."

Augusta really does have a way of bringing out Couples' best -- no matter what his age. He won here in 1992, of course, and has nine other top 10 finishes, including a tie for third in 2006. That was the 20th anniversary of Nicklaus' back-nine charge to a sixth green jacket, and while "Boom Boom" isn't the Bear, fans were thrilled to see Couples make a run of his own, playing with Mickelson in the final group.

The story line petered out on the back nine, though. Two years later, Couples missed the cut at Augusta National, ending the record streak he shares with Gary Player at 23 consecutive cuts made.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I missed the cut the last two years and I went away pretty frustrated because I played pretty well," Couples said.

He arrived at Augusta National this year playing some of his best golf in years. He'd won his last three starts on the Champions Tour, and a 66 on Thursday showed he could hang with the youngsters, too. It made him the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the opening round of this tournament.

But he slid out of contention -- or so it seemed -- because of his creaky back and poor putting Friday. He three-putted for bogeys on 16 and 17, and misclubbed on 18 to stumble to a 75.

"I know I can play the course. I can putt the greens ... but I have not made really any putts this week," he said. "I know that sounds really stupid, but I've hit the ball very well."

When Nicklaus won in 1986, he shot a 30 on the back nine. Couples doesn't think he has to match that. But with Westwood, Mickelson and that guy named Tiger Woods all in front of him, he knows he'll have to go low to have any hope of catching them.

"They're not going to shoot much over par. I need 65 or 66 to get in," Couples said. "It would be a miracle, but we'll see."