On April 12, 1992, Fred Couples (b. 1959) comes from behind in the final round to win the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. It stands as the biggest victory in a long career marking the Seattle native as the best golfer to come from the Pacific Northwest.
The Masters was established in 1934. Unlike professional golf's other major tournaments -- the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship -- it is played on the same course every year, picturesque Augusta National. To the winner go a coveted green jacket and considerable prestige.
Couples, who grew up playing at Seattle's Jefferson Park Golf Course and O'Dea High School, was the favorite heading into the 1992 tournament. He was the reigning Player of the Year on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour and No. 1 in the world rankings. In the previous four tour events that year, he had won two and finished second twice. Nobody was hotter.
As an All-American golfer at the University of Houston, he and one of his teammates, Jim Nantz (b. 1959), used to dream about Couples winning the Masters and Nantz, whose ambition was to become a golf broadcaster, interviewing him about the victory on live television. In 1992, with Couples in his 12th year as a professional and Nantz as lead golf broadcaster for CBS, the network covering the tournament, they were positioned to make it happen.
A See-Saw Battle
After shooting a 69 in the first round, Couples was four strokes behind co-leaders Lanny Wadkins (b. 1949) and Jeff Sluman (b. 1957). Defending Masters champion Ian Woosnam (b. 1958) and Australia's Craig Parry (b. 1966) each shot 66 to tie for the second-round lead at 135, nine under par. Playing in a group behind them, Couples made a double bogey (two over par) on the 14th hole and a three-putt on the 16th, but still carded a 67 for the round and was one stroke behind the co-leaders.
Thunderstorms suspended the third round for nearly two hours. When play resumed, Woosnam quickly fell from contention. Parry, Couples, and Raymond Floyd (b. 1942) jockeyed for the lead, but because of the delay they were unable to finish their round before dark. After completing the round the next morning, Parry was alone in front, one stroke ahead of Couples and two ahead of Floyd. They took a lunch break and then returned for the final round, the outcome very much in doubt.
Almost immediately, Parry gained another stroke over Couples but then three-putted on three consecutive holes. From then on, it was essentially a see-saw race to the finish between Couples and Floyd, a 49-year-old who had teamed with Couples at several previous events and was considered by him as a friend and mentor. Floyd, who was playing in the group ahead of Couples, had the lead after eight holes. Couples turned the tables after nine and pulled ahead by two after 10. The decisive hole turned out to be No. 12, a dangerous par-3 with a small green perched above Rae's Creek.
"The Biggest Break"
Floyd bogeyed the 12th, giving Couples a three-stroke lead as he stepped up to the tee. His shot went into a bad place, landing on a steep slope that sent the ball rolling toward the creek as the crowd groaned. Improbably, two feet from the water, the ball stopped. Onlookers could hardly believe it.
Covering the tournament for Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly wrote:
"... somehow, some way, Couples's golf ball hugged the steep slope at Augusta National's 12th hole, clung to it the way a sock clings to a towel fresh out of a hot dryer. The ball steadfastly refused to fall into the water. ... A ball has about as much chance of stopping on that bank as a marble does of stopping halfway down a drainpipe. Does not happen" ("Bank Shot").
Saved from a likely bogey, Couples used a wedge to pitch within two feet of the hole and made par. "I don't know how it stayed dry," he said later about his tee shot. "It was probably the biggest break of my life" (Bissell, 174).
His three-stroke lead was intact, but the tournament wasn't over. Floyd made an eagle (two under par) putt on the 15th to pull within two strokes with three holes to go. Couples still had that lead when he stepped up to the 18th tee, but he sent his shot into a big fairway bunker. What could have been a problem wasn't. Couples used his 7-iron to reach the green, two-putted to make par and, for the first time in his career, win a major.
During the televised presentation of the green jacket, Nantz reminded Couples of their college days. They were remembering how they had imagined, even gone so far as to playfully rehearse, that interview. They struggled to maintain their composure. When the camera was turned off, they hugged each other and cried. In Couples' hometown, where his parents were watching on television, his mother, apparently unaware of the Nantz-Couples back story, said, "Jefferson Park was his home away from home. He played every day, but never dreamed it would lead to anything like this" ("Back in Seattle ...")
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a photo of Couples on the top of its front page and a banner headline on its lead sports page hailing a "Major Breakthrough for Couples." He made the cover of the next Sports Illustrated, where the headline declared him "On Top of the World." Reilly, in his article on the tournament, concluded that "Couples is now the most dominant phenom since Johnny Miller [b. 1947] in the early 1970s, and the proof was evident at Augusta" ("Bank Shot"). Pundits and his fellow pros piled on the praise and predicted much future success.Couples won no more PGA events that year, but he did repeat as the Vardon Trophy winner for having the tour's best scoring average and again was named Player of the Year. In a career spanning four decades and with PGA and Champions tour earnings topping $30 million, the 1992 Masters remained his greatest achievement.