The Couples Conundrum -- Now In His 17Th Year As A Pro, Fred Couples Returns Home For A Tournament, Seemingly Comfortable Finishing In The Middle Of The Pack

A GROUNDSKEEPER'S SALARY paid for Tom and Violet Couples' white rambler on Beacon Hill. It is nothing special, with its plain clapboard frame, black shutters, small windows and narrow eaves, even when compared with the other houses in its neighborhood of many immigrants, laborers and shopkeepers.

What made the Couples' house vaguely special was its location a few blocks away from the Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course, without which their youngest son, Fred, might have become a salesman or a minor-league outfielder. Instead, he discovered golf and simultaneously the disapproval of his father, whose idea of a serious athletic endeavor was not the pampering game of golf.

In this world of 4 billion people, most of us never pick up a golf club. By minor accident Fred Couples did, revealing a talent that's extraordinary but so specific it seems a fluke that it was harvested at all.

Without his swing, Fred Couples might be no one in particular.

He is a man of ordinary intelligence, compassion, discipline and ambition. But he can hit a small, dimpled sphere like it was all he was meant to do.

"The reaction of the ball coming off the club face doesn't fit with the way he strikes the ball," said CBS golf commentator Jim Nantz, who golfed with Couples in college. "His swing is beguiling. What your eyes are seeing is not what's happening. It just doesn't fit."

Even among the best golfers in the world, Couples' swing is singular, a distinct backswing and follow-through. He swings so slowly and evenly that he appears to cast the ball instead of strike it. He moves like a metronome. No energy is wasted. And he barely thinks about it.

Of form and technique, Couples once said he knows "diddly squat . . . When I'm playing well, I don't even take aim."

THE GAME SEEMS to have come intuitively to Couples, now in his 17th year as a pro. He admits he is not diligent about practicing. Until he got to college he never took a lesson. Couples is a Natural, maybe more so than golf superstar Tiger Woods, who began golfing at a much younger age and was trained and mentored. Couples snuck on the back nine through someone's back yard or a hole in the fence in between Little League practices.

"Golf's not a sport, it's a game," Couples said. "I think I am very, very gifted. Golf is a pretty easy game for me to play. I have a lot of talent, but I don't think I've wasted it. My attitude has always been the same."

Same as it was when he won the Masters in 1992, when he was considered the best golfer in the world. Same as it was when he was cut from the Kemper Open last June after taking one month off from the game. He spent time with his sick father. He took a vacation to Europe with his new girlfriend. He didn't touch a club.

He might just as easily have skipped this year's U.S. Open, as he was in no shape to play well. But more than a tournament, the U.S. Open is the game's biggest stage, and therefore sponsors insist its golfers play it. Going into the U.S. Open, Couples had earned almost $300,000. It won't be his worst season, but it will be far from his best, 1992, when he won the Masters and earned $1,344,188, more than a million of it by May.

He made the cut at the Open, playing on the most unforgiving course of the year, but finished far behind the leaders. Couples, 37, is still young enough to afford mediocre seasons, assuming the herniated disk in his back allows him to play. He finished among the top 10 in five of his first six tournaments in 1997. Nonetheless, he will not likely bring his best golf to Seattle a week from tomorrow when he plays in his annual Fred Couples Invitational at Inglewood Golf Club. But with Couples, you never know.

"Fred's unpredictable," Nantz said. "Just when you think he's in a slump, he could come out of the box and win the British Open. He's not putting well, but that can change with a thought."

The curing thought will perhaps come in the company of his invitational's small but elite field, which includes Tom Lehman, Davis Love, Phil Mickelson, Jeff Sluman, Brad Faxon, Jay Haas and Arnold Palmer. Couples' tournament, which runs two days, is so far the only event that brings PGA talent to the Seattle area.

That will change next year when the PGA Championship - one of golf's four major tournaments along with the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open - will be played at Sahalee Country Club outside Redmond.

"I can't wait," Couples said. "I think I'll be as nervous as if I was leading a tournament. To play a major tournament in your back yard? I can't imagine. I'll probably go up early and pay more attention to that week than any other."

THE REGULARS AT Jefferson affectionately and mockingly call it Jeffmont. At the main entrance hangs a plaque declaring it Fred Couples' home course. As a kid, he picked up balls on the driving range in order to play for free. By the time he graduated from O'Dea High School in 1977, he was forbidden to use his driver on the driving range, out of concern for anyone playing basketball on the other side of the fence, 300 yards away at the Jefferson Community Center.

Couples kept his clubs in the musty lockers that are still behind the men's room. He rode his bicycle to the course and always played in tennis shoes. The place has not changed over the years.

Silk flowers on the tables of the cafeteria are the only things fancy in the clubhouse. The television works by rabbit-ear antenna, tin foil wrapped around its ends. The lunch special, $4.25, is an egg-salad sandwich with a green salad.

What is charming about Jefferson is the way it seems to democratize a largely elitist sport. Greens fees are $18.50. Doctors golf here. So do truck drivers. It is partly the neighborhood, Beacon Hill, the same one Couples grew up in. It is white, black, Asian, and they all golf here in the same foursomes. Before Tiger Woods, Jefferson fused golf and multiculturalism.

Seattle and Jefferson still mean a lot to Couples, though he has scarcely stepped foot in his hometown since he left it to attend college in Houston almost 20 years ago. His older brother, Tom Jr., still lives here. And Tom Sr., diagnosed with leukemia, now lives near the Meridian Valley Country Club with daughter Cindy and her husband in the condominium Fred purchased after their mother, Violet, died of cancer three years ago.

When Fred visits, even some of his closest friends don't know. He has no plans to move back, not as long as he's playing. He misses Seattle, but it is not convenient. "I'm a weird, weird person," said Couples, who now lives in Dallas. "There are not many people or things I dislike. Where I live is not so important; it's just the traveling. If I lived in Seattle, I'd have to take a lot of long flights to tournaments.

"People say I should have lived in Seattle, that I should have stayed with my family. I know I'm not too good with a phone . . . But in my mind I'm there all the time."

The mind is troubled because his father has been in and out of the hospital. "A lot of people tell me to play well for my dad," Couples said. "Everyone's got a dad. So it's only natural. I'd say the same thing. But it's a bit much . . . to play for that reason. I'd rather play well to play well.'

Tom would say something like that. The two think alike. While Fred learned to act like his mother - outgoing, gracious - when social situations call for it, he is his father. And as his son now wishes he had spent more time at home, Tom now wishes he had gone to more of his son's tournaments.

Tom Couples was the child of Italian immigrants who changed their name from Copolla to make it sound less Italian. A quiet guy, he worked for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation until he retired. He trimmed trees at Woodland Park Zoo and marked fields at West Seattle Stadium.

"He worked by himself. He didn't want any responsibility," said Bob Warner, a friend of the family. "He was the kind of guy who liked to lie down on the davenport and watch TV. Just like Fred. Sometimes when I see Fred on TV, I don't know how he got there, knowing how quiet he was."

The solitude of golf suits Couples. If he had teammates, they would depend on him.

Fred's fame was a mixed source of family pride and discomfort. "It was hard for (Tom) to accept that Fred had done so well," Warner said. "Even Violet at times wanted Fred to give up golf and live a normal life. She wanted Fred to be Fred, her son."

After Fred won his first tournament, the 1983 Kemper Open (in which he defeated T.C. Chen, Barry Jaeckel, Gil Morgan and Scott Simpson on the second playoff hole), it was Violet and her brother Pete Sobich who assembled the family and their friends for a celebratory dinner at the Four Seas Chinese restaurant in the International District. Pete picked up the tab.

Violet died on Mother's Day weekend in 1994. The following December, Tom had a stroke. It is probably not a coincidence, his bad back notwithstanding, that Couples had one of his poorest seasons in 1995.

"HE IS SO LAID BACK, he's kind of lazy and boring," sister Cindy said. "He loves to do yard work. He loves TV. He doesn't like to answer the phone. When he comes home, he likes to lie around the house."

Whatever Fred Couples exudes - vulnerability, earnestness - does not pass golf's female audience unnoticed. As Couples moved through galleries at the U.S. Open, the chatter invariably landed on his marital status. Among golf's many sun-dried, tired, wrinkled, bald and chubby faces, Couples' stands out.

Female attention comes easily. But his love life has not been entirely successful. An 11-year marriage ended in 1992 in a highly public divorce that Couples explained with: "I was in a little bit over my head," a reference to his former wife's high-spending habits, which were at the center of the divorce proceedings.

This year he broke off an engagement to a woman he had been seeing for several years. His newest relationship is with an art dealer from Los Angeles named Thais Baker. The two met at a golf tournament. Before the U.S. Open they spent two weeks in Europe, mostly in Zurich and Paris, where they took in the French Open tennis tournament.

Despite the past, Couples wants to marry again and be a father. Baker has two sons of her own, aged 6 and 4. "I do think I'm difficult, no doubt, because what I do makes it difficult," Couples said. "I'm not a difficult person, but the life I have is difficult."

Romantic, and presumably domestic, bliss may significantly alter his professional priorities, which already are changing. "The more I stay at home, the more I want to be at home," he said. "It wasn't that way 10 or 12 years ago."

THERE IS THE CRUX of the Couples conundrum. Complacency.

"It almost seems," said one Jefferson employee, "that he doesn't want to be great."

In 1992, Couples unquestionably was great, playing a game two miles above everyone else. He averaged 69.38 strokes per round, best on the tour, and was atop the money list. He has won 12 tour events, been on four Ryder Cup teams, earned more than $6 million since 1990 and is generally considered one of the 10 best golfers in the world.

But in total he is viewed to have underachieved.

Jack Nicklaus once said of Couples in the middle of his career: "There is a guy with tremendous talent. But you never see him do much."

From Tom Weiskopf: "Fred Couples. Great talent. No goals in life. Not one."

And from CBS commentator Gary McCord: ". . . all the motivation of melted ice cream."

Imagine what would be said if Tiger Woods never won another major tournament. In 1982, Couples, only 22 years old, birdied six consecutive holes in the first round of the PGA Championship. He tied for third. He won the Kemper the next year, the Tournament Players Championship the year after, setting the double standard he never intended to create.

"He wants to be great," said Couples' agent, Lynn Roach. "He's so relaxed in his manner, and he has such a relaxed gait, he tricks a lot of people into thinking he doesn't care. Because he doesn't rush, he doesn't seem excited. His movements are very concise and intentional. He's not intense, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want it right."

A family friend, Tony Porcello, said of Couples: "There's no frosting on him. He's all cake." Porcello meant it as a compliment, not criticism. It is, really, both the best and worst of Couples.

As he lacks pretension, he lacks extraordinary ambition. The dilemma of the famous athlete is that he or she must be both like normal folks and better - more perfect versions of ourselves. We love Couples for being a regular guy, marvel at his touch with a club, but admonish him for being satisfied with only one major championship.

"I'm a pretty good golfer," Couples said. "I'm not a great golfer.

"That intense person you see as an adult was probably an intense kid. I wasn't that person. You can't start at 37. I choose to play golf the way I played it when I was 18 years old."

JEFFERSON HAS NO slow days. In the middle of a workday, every stall in the driving range is spoken for. Fat, middle-aged men with pagers clipped to the belts of their Dockers, young men wearing baseball hats turned backward, old women whose handicaps match their optical prescription. They all swing too hard, can't keep their heads still or their arm straight. It doesn't look as much like golf as it does a convulsion.

They are not bad golfers, but average golfers, who with every curse and slice prove just how difficult it is to hit a tiny ball straight and far, and how special Couples' ability is.

"He plays the game the way everyone wishes they could play it," Jim Nantz said. "We all wish we could look so effortless and produce such phenomenal results."

Wouldn't it be wonderful, they all think, to win the Masters without even aiming.

Hugo Kugiya is a Pacific Magazine writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.