By Travis Puterbaugh, Curator
THE PLAYERS Championship of 1996, now a quarter-century in the past, is remembered historically for two things: it would be the final THE PLAYERS before Tiger Woods joined the PGA TOUR, and for the gutsy final round performance by one of the TOUR’s most popular players: Fred Couples.
It had been just over two years since the 1994 Doral-Ryder Open in South Florida when Couples injured his back swinging an 8-iron minutes before his tee time, forcing him to withdraw from the tournament’s final round and eventually pull out of the Masters. Chronic back issues, he learned, would condemn Couples to a lifetime of physical discomfort. Then, during that same season, his mother, Violet, passed away on Mother’s Day, just three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I don’t even want to think about how much it hurt Fred,” said CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, a friend of Couples since their days playing together on the University of Houston golf team. “She was a very special woman, and there was a real bond there.”
He played sporadically the rest of the year, but in August Couples captured the 1994 Buick Open by two strokes over Corey Pavin. Despite back-to-back wins on the European Tour in January of 1995 – the first time in his career he posted consecutive wins – Couples would not post a win on the PGA TOUR for the first time since 1989, ending what had been the longest active streak on the TOUR.
This set the table for a stunning performance at THE PLAYERS in March 1996, a tournament he first won in 1984 just three years after joining the TOUR full-time in 1981. One month earlier at the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, Couples finished T2 just one stroke behind tournament champion Craig Stadler but followed with a disappointing 58th place finish at Doral, and then skipped the next two legs of the “Florida Swing,” the Honda Classic and then the Bay Hill Classic, to play in the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, one of the events he had won in January 1995.
One might wonder how someone with chronic back pain might respond after flying from the Middle East to Florida with just one week to prepare for one of the TOUR’s most challenging events.
“To go out and beat these guys, you need to practice,” Couples said prior to THE PLAYERS. “There’s no way you can just show up and win.”
Yet without much time to prepare, Couples kind of did just that.
Couples shot an opening-round 66 – completed on Friday morning due to rainstorms on Thursday – and found himself just one stroke behind tournament leaders Kenny Perry and Justin Leonard. He receded into the pack with a second-round 72, five shots off the lead but plenty good enough to reserve a spot for the weekend.
While a pack of golfers looking to win for the first time on the PGA TOUR – Tommy Tolles, David Duval, and Michael Bradley – helmed three of the top four spots on the leaderboard at the end of the third round, Couples had done enough on his “moving day” with a 68 to remain in the conversation for Sunday, posting five birdies to just one bogey on the afternoon.
Following his round, Couples dismissed the notion that he might somehow succumb to the pressure of being in contention on Sunday. After all, the fact that his back had held up enough for two sub-70 rounds was more than half the battle.
“I couldn’t care less about $630,000 and I couldn’t care less about a 10-year exemption,” Couples famously said of the TOUR’s largest-ever winner’s share and the marvelous exemption that came with winning the TOUR’s signature event. Already an 11-time winner on the PGA TOUR, champion of the 1992 Masters, and not to mention a millionaire many times over, Couples knew that the course itself, not the promise of the prizes at the end, could more easily stand in his way.
Then he went out and showed that the course would offer him not even a token amount of resistance. Beginning his final round four strokes behind the second-year TOUR player Tolles, Couples put together a bravura performance ranking as one of the finest final rounds of his Hall of Fame career.
Couples set the tone early when on the par-five 2nd hole, he wiggled his way out of trouble in the trees and bushes to save par. He posted four birdies on the front nine, with putts of 20+ feet on the 3rd and 6th hole, though a minor setback came on the 11th when he missed a gimme two-footer. He rebounded strongly on the next hole, however, with a six-foot birdie putt to pull even with Tolles and Colin Montgomerie, who like Couples began the day T5.
His signature moment of the tournament came on the 16th hole, a 497-yard par-five which nearly derailed his magnificent round. Now trailing by one stroke, on his second shot from 220 yards out, Couples chose to hit his 2-iron into the green. With what he called “a sucker pin” set up on the far right of the green, his shot started towards the middle and then faded towards an inevitable splashdown on the right. Only, the ball took a favorable bounce back towards the green, leaving him a 25-foot putt for eagle.
“Not a difficult putt,” Couples said, “I’m not used to making these, and when I make them, I seem to make them all.”
It is exactly what he did, punctuating the eagle with a triumphant fist raised towards the air and a roar of approval from the fans gathered at the well-populated corner of TPC Sawgrass where 16 and 17 intersect.
While others folded and faded coming down the stretch, Couples charged ahead and put an exclamation on his performance with another birdie on 17, a downhill putt from 30 feet that sent the crowd into yet another frenzy. He followed on 18 with a hard-earned par, finishing his round with a 64, good for 18-under overall. In one afternoon, Couples turned a four-stroke deficit into a four-stroke victory with one of the greatest final rounds in PLAYERS history, becoming the tournament’s first two-time winner since the event moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982.