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Couples hoping RTO resurrects career

Jeremy Evans

RENO – It’s hard to imagine that Reno, of all places, could be the crossroads of a professional golfer’s career. Especially one as successful as Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters Champion.

But Couples hasn’t won a tournament since 1998 and hasn’t finished in the top 10 all season. When he made the cut last week at the PGA Championship, it was only the second time he’s made the cut at a major this year.

Couples, who turns 42 in October, mentioned retirement if things continue like they have been.

“I’m not 32 years old, I can see the writing on the wall,” Couples said. “I have other interests now. There’s a lot of things I’d like to do. I’ve always been a pretty good ball striker. Now, I don’t hit the ball that well. I don’t putt that well.

“Last week, I felt like I was hitting the ball well and I finished in the 40th spot. So to me, I just can’t see why anybody would want to do that.”

Couples will play in two more tournaments this year- the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Las Vegas Invensys Classic in October.

“Really, this year is all coming down to a close and it’s not been a very good one,” said Couples, who’s currently 107th on the PGA Tour money list. “But I’m certainly not going to give it my all to finish in 110th in the money list. Some people say, ‘well that’s not bad.’ Well, it’s not what I want to do.”

Couples will reevaluate this whole retirement thing after next season. He said wants to give himself one more chance.

“Next year, I will practice and hopefully it’ll be a great year,” Couples said. “And if I choose to stop, then I can go out with a bang. And if I play horrible, I’ll go out…going out horrible. Then I’ll come out and play the next year in 2003 in a few tournaments.”

So retiring doesn’t actually mean quitting. Couples says he’ll still play in 12 to 14 tournaments every year.

“I’m not quitting,” said Couples, who’s won 14 tournaments since turning pro in 1980 out of the University of Houston. “Everybody plays golf. I’ll go home and golf in outings, just to get out of the house and play. I mean, I’m not going to become a basketball player.”

Since Couples won the 1996 Players Championship, he has exemption status through 2006. That’ll allow him to pick and choose the tournaments he wants to play in.

“I still have my all-time favorite tournaments and hopefully, I’ll get spots in them if I’m not exempt,” Couples said. “I just want people to know that I’m not quitting because I had one bad year. I’ve had other bad years.”

Couples also realizes that the past two Reno-Tahoe Open champions have used the event to jump start their careers. Two years ago, Notah Begay III won the inaugural RTO and Scott Verplank won last year. Both haven’t been able to defend their titles because they’ve ended up qualifying for the NEC/World Golf Championships, held the same weekend as the RTO.

Ironically, perhaps, was that Verplank hadn’t won a tournament since 1998 when he beat Frenchman Jean Van De Velde in a four-hole playoff last year at Montreux Golf and Country Club. So when Couples was asked if he’d think winning in Reno would reinstall his drive to get better:

“Well, yeah,” Couples responded. “If I happen to win here, it’d be a little bit of a fluke. I’m still capable of winning, but I’d like to be playing better to say that. But to resurrect my game, it’s got a long way to go still.”

Couples, though, is in a different situation than Verplank and Begay, two of golf’s rising stars. Couples is a veteran. He has his major championship. Some still stay he’s one of the most gifted golfers in the game. He wants to get back to where he once was. He just can’t find the drive to make it happen.

A win this week at the RTO could do that. But a loss wouldn’t phase him, either. That’s just the approach Couples now has for golf tournaments.

“I’ve always played to win,” Couples said. “I haven’t won 100 tournaments, but I’ve won enough and I’ve contended in a lot of them. But if you’re not doing to do that, it’s just no fun.”