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Unflappable Freddie

The very traits that buried Fred Couples in criticism during his prime, play to his advantage now that his hair shines silver. The easy-going, la-de-da attitude that infuriated others a couple decades ago wears well when there's just one Masters winner on the leader board and unflappable Freddie is him.

Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia want a major so badly they'd swim the Atlantic if it meant a green jacket. Rory McIlroy seeks atonement for last year's final-round implosion. Jason Dufner has the 2011 PGA Championship rattling around between his ears. And Couples? Asked if he's hoping for a better Masters weekend than last year he responded, "Well, I don't know. What happened last year?"

Last year Couples was seventh heading into Saturday and backtracked to 15th by Sunday evening. This year he's tied for the lead thanks to Friday's 5-under 67 and a match of Dufner's 36-hole total of 139. It would have been the lowest Masters round ever for a player over 50 except that two years ago Couples shot 66.

To dismiss Couples based on age (he's 52) is to ignore his history. He's been in 27 Masters and finished top 10 in 11 of them. He played here 23 times until -- with his back ailing -- he finally missed a cut. While others examine holes at Augusta National like they're the Deep Sea Scrolls, Freddie plays them all by rote. When rain washed out his back-nine practice round he thought, "There's no reason for me to go play the back nine on Wednesday morning. I'm going to hook it on the 10th hole and hopefully hit the green and hit the 12th green and all that. So I've played enough where I want to do just enough work to be prepared and go from there."

The nonchalance Couples brought to the game used to drive Jack Nicklaus crazy. The Golden Bear went off years ago when Couples said before a PGA Tour event that he hoped to finish in the top three. Top three! Nicklaus couldn't comprehend someone entering a tournament with anything less than victory on his mind.

But that's just it. Couples has always been more of a player than a competitor. He goes out, does his best, and lives easy with the results. Particularly at the Masters.

"I say this about Phil [Mickelson], because I feel the same way about me," Couples said. "I feel like this is a park for Phil, and he walks around and there's a lake over here and if he's got to carve it across this pond, then do this or that. I feel the same way.

"I don't feel too much stress. Now, obviously there's stress out there. What I'm getting at is, when you're playing here, I'm not going to let too many things bother me. It's so beautiful. You can't say it's your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday. if I don't do well, you know, I leave here with the attitude of, you know, I'll come back next year and do well."

It's funny how age changes perceptions. His peers used to look at Couples and wonder, "Why doesn't he try harder." Now the new generation sizes him up and marvels at how he makes everything look so easy.

"He's just cool," McIlroy said. "I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52, or whatever he is. Yeah, he's just a cool guy. And he's good fun. I've gotten to know him a little bit over the last couple of years, and you know, he's laid back and relaxed and just a really nice guy."

No one's more surprised than Couples that he keeps putting up numbers at Augusta. Two years ago he was never outside the top 10 in placing sixth. Last year he stood seventh after the second round and finished tied for 15th along with McIlroy, the 54-hole leader.

Couples has driven 21 of 28 fairways this week. Friday he hit 13 of 18 greens. He still hasn't played a sand shot. His next three-putt will be his first.

"He always seems to play well here whenever he comes back," McIlroy said. "I feel he still has the length to play this golf course. I think the more times you come back here, the more you feel comfortable on it. Freddie has a lot of experience here and he still has the game to do well. You know, great to see him up there, and just adds a little more spice to the weekend."

Contrary to his cool exterior, a fire burns within. Couples was in the final group when Mickelson won in 2006. He finished a shot behind Mark O'Meara in 1998.

"I wish I would have won it again; I didn't," Couples said. "I wish I would have beaten Mark or Phil one of those two years, but to win it once was truly amazing, and to play well here a lot I think is because I really know the golf course. That doesn't mean I'm going to do well every single time, but I feel like I can get it around and figure out how to shoot a score on this course.

"Can I win? I believe I can, yes."

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com