Golf won't play fair. Not ever. That's the first rule of the game.

You grind your guts for five years on the PGA Tour, the way Fred Couples did -- making a name for yourself and a nest egg. Then, just once, you let down and take a vacation for a couple of months.

And your game goes so far south you think about sending out a search party to Antarctica to look for it.

Then one day, for practically no reason, just when everything looks bleakest, you go out and shoot an 8-under-par 64 to tie the course record at notoriously nasty Congressional Country Club.

"I don't know who played for me today," said Couples after his first-round barrage of nine birdies (a course record) had given him a three-stroke lead over Larry Mize, Tom Sieckmann and Charlie Bolling.

"The way I've been playing, if someone looked up and saw that Couples shot 64, he'd probably say, 'Big deal, he might shoot 74 tomorrow.' If it were Hal Sutton, they'd say, 'My God, look out, he might run away,' " said Couples, who won this event in a five-way playoff in 1983 but has sunk to 82nd on the cash list this season.

Lots of less than immortal folk scorched the dry, hard Congressional track on this humid, windless day. As Bolling said, "It's never going to play any tamer than this." Leonard Thompson, David Ogrin, Dennis Trixler and Mike Reid had 68s, and a total of 34 broke par of 72. Except for Calvin Peete, who had to withdraw with a sore knee, few players were feeling any pain.

If you don't count Couples, who has won a TPC, and the promising Mize, who blew a five-shot final-day lead here last year, the leader board contains as motley a collection as you'll find. Of the 58 players at par or better, only one -- John Mahaffey (71) -- has won a major title in the last 15 years. The bigger names -- such as Greg Norman (72) and Craig Stadler, Lanny Wadkins and Curtis Strange at 73 -- all have serious ground to cover to rejoin the hunt.

That suits Couples and Mize just fine. They're on private crusades -- Couples to get back near the top of his sport and Mize (who also collapsed at the TPC in March) to prove that his middle initial shouldn't be D.

Nice conditions or not, nobody has ever put a birdie burn on Congressional like Couples' 31-33 march, which included birds at Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 15 and 18, with just one bogey, at No. 2.

Only one player, George Burns in 1983, had ever posted an 8-under-par score. Tommy Jacobs' 64 at the 1964 U.S. Open came when par was 70, not 72. "I had no idea about a record," said Couples. "What is the record?

"Do I get anything?"

Only three strokes of handicap in pursuit of a $90,000 first prize. And the comforting knowledge that his golf swing isn't in permanent hibernation.

One day ago, Couples' stock was so low that a company for whom he does endorsements phoned him to nag about why he (and their product) were not appearing on those Sunday TV broadcasts anymore. "That ticked me off," said Couples, who at the time was in the process of whittling down and reshafting all his clubs.

"It's a weird game, and when you're not playing well, it's tough to hit any good shots," said Couples, who missed the cut last week at Muirfield. "You see the leaders on TV every week, and they're all playing well. It looks like a lot of fun. But get out here week to week and have to putt well to shoot two-over, and it's very frustrating.

"The way I've been playing, I haven't even been talking to my caddie. Usually, I'm 5 over par after two holes and pretty upset."

Couples knows the exact source of his miseries. Which doesn't help a bit. "I kind of sat back on my haunches and relaxed a little last year. I felt like I deserved it," said Couples, who was the No. 7 money winner in '84 with more than a third of a million dollars.

"In a way, it was kind of stupid . . . I'll never do that again."

In sports that offer multiyear contracts, a player can sometimes rest on his or her laurels and nobody notices. When that happens in golf, there are suddenly no more checks to cash.

In the middle of last summer, Couples took six weeks off out of seven, and "after that I just really lost it."

He found it yesterday.

In disgust after Muirfield, Couples played 72 holes in two days with buddies who aren't top-flight golfers. But even they were giving him tips. And he took one.

"I wasn't hitting enough full shots. I'd take extra club, swing easy and hit pull-hooks. Today, I always took less club, swung to the maximum, and every time I looked up, the ball was flying right at the hole."

And every time he looked up, his putts were falling into the hole. His birdies came from 15, 5, 5, 2, 4, 15, 3, 3 and, finally, at the 18th, 15 feet. Couples lipped out a seven- and an 11-footer.

Even Couples' mistakes were blessed. At the par-5 10th hole, he had 245 yards left to the green, with water to the right, and changed clubs twice, from a 3-wood to a 1-iron to a 4-iron. "I was trying to lay up," Couples said, but his shot came out hot and stopped 15 feet from the hole for a two-putt birdie.

"Weird game," said Couples. "After that, 6 under through 10 holes, I just tried to hang in there, not get greedy and give it all back."

Plenty of the players did hand everything back. Victor Regalado began 5 under through six holes and finished at 72.

The man still charging at the close of business was Mize, who birdied the 17th and 18th holes from three and 15 feet.

"After letting it slip away last year, I'd like to get it this year . . . it would be an even bigger thrill after last year. But I'm trying not to put any big pressure on myself," said Mize, 27, a cheerful Georgian.

"I didn't think about what happened here at all until after the TPC this year," said Mize, who threw away a four-shot margin at the players club on the last five holes. "I'd be tellin' you a lie if I said I didn't think about it after that . When I played a practice round here on Wednesday , on the back nine, I thought about some of the shots from the final Sunday last year, like the one in the water at the 10th.

"That's what happened to Tom Watson early in his career ," Mize said, referring to final-nine problems. "It made him tournament tough and mentally tough. I think I can learn from it."

The first-round crowd of 18,000 broke the Thursday record, set last year, by 20 percent, according to tournament chairman Ben Brundred. For them, Couples had one more bit of spicy news. His wife Deborah -- sole owner of the tour record for most famous victory kiss -- is back in town.

"She's here," said Couples. "Down in Georgetown."

Armed and dangerous. Garbacz Has 65 Associated Press

MASON, Ohio, May 29 -- Lori Garbacz shot a 7-under-par 65 to take a one-stroke lead over Ayako Okamoto after today's opening round of the LPGA Championship at the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center.