2023 Masters: Fred Couples Talks About Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy

AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the pleasures of the Masters Tournament can be finding Fred Couples, the 1992 winner, in an expansive mood.And so it was on a particularly brisk Monday, after he had played part of the course with Tom Kim, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. Few players have had as many close looks at Woods in recent years: The men routinely play practice rounds together, with Couples filling a role approximating that of court jester. And even if his analyses sometimes prove off the mark, they can be telling glimpses of Woods’s potential.“He’s strong enough to hit it a mile,” Couples said of Woods. “He’s not hitting it as far as Rory — I don’t think many people are — but he’s hitting it really strong and solid, and he looks good.”Woods has played only four rounds of tournament golf this year, logging an average driving distance of 306.3 yards, about 20 yards behind McIlroy. But the challenge for Woods, as ever these days after the car wreck that nearly cost him a leg in February 2021, is walking 72 holes over four days of competition. Asked Monday whether Woods was moving differently from the way he had around this time last year, Couples replied, “Probably not.”“The leg — I guess this is what it is,” he continued. “I don’t know how much better it’s ever going to get.”But Couples did not talk exclusively about Woods. In McIlroy, who is seeking a victory at Augusta to complete a career Grand Slam, he sees a player with all of the potential in the world to capture a green jacket.“Is it surprising he’s never won this?” he said. “Of course it is, the way he plays and the way he putts and how high he hits it and how far he hits it. But it’s not that easy.”And not long after he had drawn headlines for bashing LIV players — Phil Mickelson was a “nut bag” and Sergio García a “clown” — Couples said he had merely wanted them to avoid criticizing the PGA Tour.“They don’t bother me,” he said. “They really don’t. They’re golfers. I’m a golfer. I respect them all. On my show, I’ve told everyone Sergio is one of the top 10 players I’ve ever seen hit a ball, but if he’s going to make comments about the tour that I play, I’m going to make a comment back — and if it’s offensive, I apologize, but they’re on another tour. Go play and have a good time.”Jabs aside, he was not bothered by their invitations to the Masters: “I think they deserve to be here.”— Blinder‘It’s definitely not going to be on any nutritionist’s plan.’Nearly all of the living Masters winners (as well as Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman) are expected to convene Tuesday evening for their annual dinner. Scottie Scheffler, the reigning champion, picked the menu and will pick up the tab.The appetizers include cheeseburger sliders and firecracker shrimp. A tortilla soup will be on offer, and guests can pick between a Texas rib-eye steak — Scheffler, after all, is essentially a product of Dallas — and blackened redfish. Side items include macaroni and cheese, jalapeño creamed corn and brussels sprouts, and the dessert will be chocolate-chip skillet cookies topped with milk-and-cookies ice cream.The menu’s development began with a conversation among Scheffler; his wife, Meredith; and Blake Smith, his agent. The trio kicked around Scheffler’s favorite foods and narrowed the list before consulting with an Augusta National chef to nail down the menu.“It’s definitely not going to be on any nutritionist’s plan,” Scheffler said last month. “But we’re going to have fun. We’re going to eat some good food.”The menu should appeal to plenty of former winners, a traditional bunch that has sometimes been alarmed by selections like haggis (Sandy Lyle) and kidney pie (Nick Faldo). Some were skeptical in 2001, when they arrived to a Vijay Singh-commissioned menu of Thai delicacies.“I’m sure Charlie Coody didn’t try anything,” Tommy Aaron, the 1973 winner, recalled of the 1971 victor. “I had never had Thai food, and it was fantastic.”But the dinners, Aaron said a few years ago, always feature one practice: “They pour that wine like it’s going out of style.”— BlinderEvery day is like Sunday.First-time visitors at the Masters tournament are always obvious. For starters, they tend to walk slowly with their eyes wide. As famed as Augusta National Golf Club is, to a newcomer parading around the grounds, the landscape is a bevy of surprises that no television broadcast — however technologically advanced and exhaustingly thorough — can grasp.For example, every Masters first-timer is stunned that the vertical drop from the 10th tee to the 10th green is a stunning, and difficult to traverse, 85 feet. It’s one of many discoveries. And as Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion, said on Monday, even veteran players know that there may be another revelation awaiting them each time they arrive at the site of the tournament.Players fret and worry that their games may not be ready for the exacting test that awaits.Taking note of a packed practice range on Monday, Spieth waved a hand toward the scene and said: “Have you ever seen this many people practicing this hard on a Monday? Typically, you take Monday off.”Annual tweaks to the course, like the substantial lengthening of the 13th hole this year, only add to the tension. As Spieth added: “You know, you’re just anxious. More anxious than nervous.”Asked if the mental preparation for the tee shot on the pivotal first hole tended to change considerably from Thursday’s welcoming opening round to Sunday’s tense final, Spieth shook his head side to side. “I don’t feel that it changes,” he answered.He continued: “It’s one of the only places it doesn’t change for me, regardless of the position I’m in. It feels like it’s a Sunday — a first tee shot in contention each day.”— PenningtonCameron Smith arrived with trepidation.It’s not just golf fans and reporters who have been wondering how the stalwarts of the PGA Tour and the renegade LIV golfers would get along when having to mingle at the Masters tournament for the first time this week. Cameron Smith, who bolted for the Saudi-backed LIV circuit a month after winning last year’s British Open, conceded on Monday that he had approached the Augusta National Golf Club practice area with trepidation.“I really wasn’t sure what to expect walking onto the range, but it was good to see some familiar faces and a lot of smiles,” Smith said with a wide grin. “It was just a really nice experience.”But Smith, who is hardly known for pointed remarks, also insisted that the 18 LIV golfers in the 88-player 2023 Masters field were intent on having a visible presence at the top of the leaderboard when at the tournament’s conclusion. And, he said, the LIV cohort is aware of the shade that has been thrown its way by its one-time colleagues on the PGA Tour.“It’s just important for LIV guys to be up there, because I think we need to be up there,” Smith said on Monday. Referring to the occasional derisive comments directed at the LIV circuit by PGA Tour players, officials or members of the golf media, he added: “I think there’s a lot of chatter about how these guys don’t play real golf; these guys don’t play real golf courses. For sure, I’ll be the first one to say, the fields aren’t as strong. But we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf.“I think we just need a good, strong finish.”Smith was also asked about whether the LIV golfers had discussed having a joint celebration on the 18th green if one of them were to win this year’s Masters, which was suggested recently by Greg Norman, the LIV Golf Commissioner.“There definitely hasn’t been a conversation with me — I definitely got left out of that one,” he said, laughing. “I guess we’ll see how the week unfolds. For sure, I’d love to see one of us guys get up to the top of the leaderboard and really give it a nice shot.”Lastly, Smith, whose world golf ranking has slipped to sixth from second at the end of the 2022, reiterated that he had no regrets about joining LIV Golf.“I’ve made my bed, and I’m very, very happy where I am,” he said.— PenningtonKeep an eye on the weather.Yes, it is early in the week. Yes, weather forecasts can change. But no, the outlook for this week is not great. The team assembling forecasts for Augusta National has pegged the chances of rain at 60 percent or higher on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.“Shower and thunderstorm chances increase Thursday afternoon as a weak frontal boundary approaches,” the tournament said in one of its official forecasts on Monday. “The front is expected to stall to the south Friday into Saturday with a northeast wind pushing much colder air into Georgia. Waves of upper-level energy moving along the front are forecast to produce periods of rain that could be heavy at times through Sunday.”All of that scientific speak could make this Masters a delight for Rory McIlroy, who has sometimes thrived in abysmal weather at major tournaments, and a nightmare for the organizers.The Masters last had a Monday finish in 1983, when Seve Ballesteros won his second green jacket. That year, the second round — the Friday round — did not end until 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.But Augusta National is accustomed to dealing with poor weather more recently. If a round is upended in the coming days because of inclement conditions, this will be the fifth consecutive year in which tournament organizers have had to grapple so explicitly with meteorological misfortune.— Blinder

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