For all practical purposes, Fred Couples wrapped up the American Family Insurance Championship when he birdied six of the first 11 holes to grab a four-shot lead on Sunday.
But in his mind, the key birdie came the day before when he birdied No. 18 to move him into the second-to-last group on Sunday so he would be able to play along with tournament host and local hero Steve Stricker.
“That was a big deal because everyone knows there would be 15,000 people all following Steve and I wanted to be in that group,” Couples said after earning the $300,000 first-place prize money with a 15-under par finish at University Ridge Golf Course, two shots better than runner-up Scott Verplank. “It gets your heart rate going, gets a lot of things going.
“We all want to play in front of people and so with Steve Stricker in Madison, you’re going to have a lot of people following him. It’s just a given. Steve has a lot of, lot of, lot of people here that root hard for him. They were all rooting for all of us. I felt like if Steve wasn’t going to win then I was sure glad that I did.”
The victory was the second of the season for Couples and his 12th career PGA Tour Champions win. And he did it coming off a seven-week layoff as he rested his persistently balky back.
“I know his body doesn’t always feel the best,” said Stricker, who shot a 3-under 69 to finish in a tie for third place at 12 under. “But you wouldn’t have known that the way he hit it today going around there and the way he putted. He didn’t make any mistakes, really.
“He’s a tremendous talent. He’s always been a great player, why would it stop now?”
About the only thing to stop Couples over the years has been his back. It’s a big reason why he only won one major — the 1992 Masters. But Couples said he doesn’t spend much time pondering what might have been.
“I wish I would have won another major,” he said. “I had probably four or five really, really good chances and I didn’t do it. But other than that, I mean, I just can’t ever look back.”
Couples said he had played only a handful of rounds and practiced little heading into the tournament.
Having dealt with back issues for years, he’s accustomed to playing with limited preparation.
“I can take time off and hit the ball, that’s not really the problem,” he said. “It’s the scoring part.
“Honestly, on this tour I feel like I can still win. On the regular tour, towards the end it just was so hard to play and practice. We have guys that practice really, really hard out here and they’re 52, 55, 60. I just don’t have the body to do that. So where I miss is when I get on a little roll, I don’t know how long it will really last.”
Couples’ fellow competitors realize if he were able to play all the time, they might have a hard time ever winning.
“He plays a different golf course than I do,” said Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion.
Madison’s Jerry Kelly, who shot a 2-under 70 Sunday to finish in a tie for 13th place at 8 under, marveled at the timeless consistency of Couples’ distinctive swing.
“His swing hasn’t changed since I started watching him,” Kelly said. “My swing changes every day, you know? He knows where the bottom is on every single shot and I don’t.
“Do I understand it? No. But, you know, he’s an incredible athlete. I mean, if he was healthy, he definitely would have been Tiger Woods-esque. He was becoming dominant and then he just kind of fell apart physically a little bit.
“If Freddie had Tiger’s putter he would have been better than Tiger, period, bottom line, no question. Strikes it better, definitely strikes it better. Has just as much firepower when he’s healthy, there’s no question.”
After struggling on the front 9 the first two days — he was even on the front and 9-under on the back 9 — Couples made his move early on Sunday.
Couples started the day three shots behind Paul Broadhurst, but with birdies on Nos. 7, 9, 10 and 11 he turned a two-shot deficit into a four-shot lead.
By the time he reached No. 13, Couples saw he had a three-shot lead over Scott Verplank and knew he just had to avoid a major mistake to win the tournament.
“I knew if I just kept hitting the ball well, someone would have to birdie every hole to beat me,” Couples said. “It was a fairly easy 18th hole.”
As they walked up the 18th hole side-by-side to a loud ovation, Stricker had a quick conversation with Couples.
“I’m like, ‘Well, if you win now, you have to come back,’” Stricker said.
“I will be here for sure, knock on wood,” Couples said. “Even if I didn’t win, I would be back. It’s a very good course for me. And, of course, we don’t play in front of a lot of people, but you have a ton of people here. It’s a really nice environment.”
Especially if you’re playing in the right group.