Even at 58, a healthy Fred Couples is a force to be reckoned with at hometown Boeing Classic

Fred Couples tees off at the 10th hole during the 2017 Boeing Classic golf tournament at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge. (Jason Redmond / Special to The Seattle Times)

When Seattle native Fred Couples began playing on the Champions Tour, he never thought he would still be playing eight years later on the 50-and-older circuit.

But he discovered he enjoyed it so much, the competition, the pairings with old friends and just playing the game, that he wanted to keep playing.

“I thought I could play five really good years on the Champions Tour and that would be it, but I would miss it,” he said. “It is fun, and I enjoy it. I really do.”

Because of that, Couples has returned time and again from forced absences caused by back issues that have plagued him for about 25 years. Even at 58, when Couples is feeling good, he is one of the best players on the Champions Tour.

After missing several months earlier this season with back trouble, Couples is feeling good again. And that makes him one of the favorites in this week’s Boeing Classic at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge, a tournament he dearly wants to win.

“I can’t wait to get to Seattle,” said Couples, who won 15 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1992 Masters, and was inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013. “There are a handful of tournaments where I really want to make sure that I get there and feel good, and Seattle would be in that category.”

Couples has not lived in Seattle since graduating from O’Dea High School and starting college at the University of Houston. But he said he will “always be a Seattle guy” and a Seattle sports fan. Before going to bed, and when he wakes up in the morning, Couples checks up on Seattle teams.

He is closely following the Mariners as they try to make the postseason, had Seahawks season tickets until last year, and is hoping the city gets an NBA and NHL team.

“People will say, well, he doesn’t live there (in Seattle),” said Couples, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif.  “That’s for sure correct. But when I played the Tour, I needed better weather, and I needed shorter flights. But I am a Seattle guy. I feel like a home guy when I get there, and I know people are rooting hard for me.”

That is unquestionably true. Of course, Couples is a fan favorite everywhere he goes, and has been for decades. But there is a special bond between Couples and the fans here.

The Boeing Classic didn’t have the same buzz when he withdrew after taking just one shot in 2011 because of his back, or when he didn’t come at all in 2016, an almost completely lost year for him when he played in just four events.

“If I finish 20th  (in the Boeing Classic), that’s OK, but not playing, it’s probably as much of a bummer as the couple of times that I missed (the Masters at) Augusta,” said Couples, who has finished third in the Boeing Classic three times, his best finishes in the event. “That’s because I am from there, and I only get to play there once a year.”

Whether he would play here this year was in question after he injured his back in the first Champions Tour event of the season in January, when he somehow still finished sixth in Hawaii. He did not play golf at all from that point until the Friday before he went to the Masters, which was April 5-8.

His back was clearly not healthy, but he did not want to miss playing in perhaps golf’s biggest event. Couples shares the record with Gary Player for most consecutive cuts made at the Masters with 23, and even in his 50s, Couples has been near the lead through at least two rounds several times.

But this was not going to be one of those years. He said he was unable to drive the ball more than 250 yards (about 50 yards shorter than normal), yet he made the cut and finished in a tie for 38th despite having to hit woods with many of his approach shots instead of irons because he was so far away.

“That was like winning,” he said of his 38th-place finish. “I got there and I had the greatest short game in the world that week and I don’t know why. It’s my favorite event and I love playing in it, but it was a rough ride.”

There was no doubt  Couples needed time off. The only question was could he return this season.

“I came back after that and I got a few more treatments and I started feeling better,” Couples said.

Good enough to return to the Champions Tour at the end of June, finishing tied for third.

“I considered that progress,” said Couples, who has 13 wins on the Champions Tour, including two last year.

A week later, he tied for 44th in the U.S. Senior Open, then tied for 21st in the Senior British Open at the end of July. Those were not the results he wanted, but his back was not the issue.

“I played a couple of times last week, I am going to play maybe three times this week and I might practice one day – I am trying to spread it out,” Couples said early last week. “So when I get to Seattle, I honestly think I will be ready. I will play some rounds and I will be ready to go.”

Couples has a different feeling playing here, whether it was the PGA Championship in 1998 at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, or the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee, in which he finished second to Bernhard Langer.

“I don’t feel any more pressure, but I feel more excitement in Seattle than I do in a lot of other tournaments. But I will always be excited there. I enjoy Seattle. I said before, if I never win (the Boeing Classic), it will be very, very disappointing.”

Win or lose, it should be fun for Couples because his back in behaving. His biggest issue at the moment is his eyes (“I am having trouble focusing”). He will see an eye doctor in Seattle.

But when the back is bothering him, the game is not much fun.

“When my back doesn’t feel well, it’s a real struggle,” he said. “And when you’re done with the round, you’ve just fought for five hours and you practiced for 50 minutes on the range, and you’re not feeling good and everyone wants you to be happy and have fun, but it’s really not very fun. I don’t ever apologize for it, but I have a feeling some people think, ‘you just don’t look right.’ When I feel well, I don’t have to win to be a happy guy.”

To make sure his back continues to feel well at the Boeing Classic, he will head back to the home of one of his childhood friends after each round rather than practicing like most players would do.

“I do everything I can to get up the next day and maybe feel better,” he said. “It’s sad because I wish I could do a lot more things. But my goal is to play really good golf. And I don’t want to let going on a boat ride or going out and seeing the sights affect the next day.”

Couples said the key to low scores in the Boeing Classic, as well almost all tournaments, is taking advantage of par-5s, particularly the ones that players can get on the green with in two good shots. For some reason, Couples has not done well on the four par-5s at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge.

“I have got to play the par-5s better so the pressure part of it is a little mental,” Couples said. “I play them, honestly, about 2- or 3-under par (for the three rounds). And that’s not very good. Some of these guys will play them 9- and 10-under par and that is why they win.”

No matter what happens this week, Couples plans on giving himself several more chances.

“To be honest with you, I am hoping to play (the Boeing Classic) even when I am 64 and 65,” Couples said.