Fred Couples hits it long and wrong a lot, as when he first explored the flora, fauna and foreheads of the 15th hole at unforgiving Congressional Country Club yesterday.

An hour later during a gangsome playoff that looked like Saturday morning at the Elks Club, Couples would win his first pro golf tournament and reap the rewards of a $72,000 check and a priceless embrace from his shy, retiring wife, Deborah, who carried her cowboy hat, platinum hair, electric-blue minidress, four turquoise bracelets and 10 red-paint toenails through a sand trap at 173 mph to leap into her hubby's arms.

"Babycakes, I lovya," demure Deborah Couples said.

But that's getting ahead of the story, for however many times Fred Couples lost the Kemper Open on a day when Congressional administered so much of what the pros call BDOTG (brain damage on the greens) that a hundred wonderful players headed babbling for TRR (the rubber room), the young slugger first won this tournament on the 15th hole when he hit one long and wrong into the left woods.

From there, he banged his second shot off a pine tree.

The ball ricocheted, boinnnggg, backward--and yet landed in the fairway. From that garden spot, Couples lashed a long iron that flew long, long--and wrong, this time sending back a report that sounded like a Titleist bouncing off a manhole cover.

Investigators learned that Couples' errant missile clanged off the forehead of Bob Hazard, 50, of Mitchellville, Md., who doffed his Wild Turkey whiskey cap to reveal a dimpled bump agrowing.

"Thank you very much, sir," Mrs. Couples said.

"Didn't even feel it," Hazard said. "Just wish it woulda bounced off me and onto the green instead of in that trap."

By bouncing it off a Hazard, though, Couples avoided the greater hazard of putting that ball under one of Congressional's noble pines, where bold explorers report unearthing the bones of unfortunates who thought they could find that damned ball and make a par.

As Couples set up for his sand shot, Mrs. Couples whispered, "Ricochet off trees, ricochet off Bob's head--now ricochet into the hole." Alas, her man settled for a bogey 6. At the time, a bogey seemed disastrous, because the 15th is Congressional's only birdie hole once you pass the 11th.

But in the rarefied atmosphere of a $400,000 tournament on a golf course stronger than a walrus' dirty socks, a single shot saved, whether by skill or fortune, can be the shot that lets you live to shoot again--perhaps as one of the gang in a five-way playoff for a championship everyone wanted to win, but nobody could.

Congressional is 7,173 yards. At daybreak, the devil rose to cut the holes into the greens. To win under a Sunday's pressure at such distance with such diabolical pin placements, only those whose feet have been to the fire a hundred times can get home safely at a par 72.

Let's say you're Fred Couples, 23, a nonwinner. Or you're Scott Simpson, 27, once a winner. Or you're T.C. Chen, 24, over from Taiwan as a rookie, with a few louts in the crowd cheering your mistakes. "All the pressure heats down on the last few holes," Couples said. It was warm earlier, too, for these three shot 77, 77 and 76.

Under these circumstances for these men, small victories assume heroic proportions. For Fred Couples, a 330-yard drive on the 18th after a bleeding bogey at the 17th was such a victory. It gave him a wedge in for a birdie, which he seemed to need to catch Simpson, the leader, but Couples left the wedge 30 feet short.

"There's the crystal Freddie's going to win for me," Mrs. Couples said when she noticed the tournament trophy glistening in the fading sunlight.

Couples' first putt was miserably short, a loser's decelerating stroke, and with Simpson facing a four-foot putt to win, Couples knocked in his four-footer first. "The way things were going, it looked like 10 feet," said Couples. "But it looked like Scott would make his, so there was not so much pressure."

Not on him, anyway.

Four feet from victory, Simpson left the putt right. He said he misread it. Couples said he pushed it.

"Freddie, Freddie," his wife called out, "you can win it, you can win it!" She jumped a lot.

By then, Congressional had won. The weather was perfect. The course was in beautiful condition. Though he described his work with words such as "struggling" and "choking," Couples considered a 77 a passing grade for a kid learning to win.

The playoff began at 15, where this time Couples made par, as did three other fellows. When his five-iron at the par-3 16th described an arc suggesting something wonderful would happen, Mrs. Couples rattled her turquoise necklace as she leaped up to say, "Waytago, Freddie, waytago, c'mon, Cups!"

The ball stopped 18 inches short.

"Hey, Mrs. Couples!" a voice called out from high in a tree near the 16th green. Word gets around.

She'd been spending the week at home at LaQuinta, Calif., where she is a teaching tennis pro. But she watched the Kemper on television Saturday. "Freddie looked different, so determined. He'd always been carefree before. So I booked myself a flight and flew all night."

To the voice in the treetop, Mrs. Couples turned and gave a thumbs-up sign.

A minute later when her man tapped in his winning putt, she took hold of her cowboy hat and put it in high gear.