Sauntering down the dewy first fairway after an 8:18 a.m. teeoff, Fred Couples, easygoing and perpetually decompressed to begin with, looked as if he needed a second wake-up call. He walked slowly up the hill between the tee and fairway, amiably chatting with playing partner George Archer, another mellow one in no hurry to take on Congressional's heave.
No hints, much less momentous portents, were given that Couples was in a state of high propulsion that would take him soaring to the peak of his game and a record-tying 64. Until there is Golf in the Kingdom, Couples' Kemper round, in terms of shotmaking and course management, will have to pass as the closest to perfection that Congressional has seen. It was a proprietary display, as if Couples owned the course so there was no need to attack it. He did better: he controlled it.
The first two holes canceled out: a birdie 3 on No. 1, with a 15-foot putt, and a bogey 4 on 2, after a 4-iron pulled sloppily into the left bunker. This mis-hit was to be his only clinker of the day. At No. 3, a 453-yard par 4 where Congressional's character as a piece of long-iron real estate weakens the average spine, Couples slugged one of his prototypic boomers. It left only a high 9-iron to the uphill green, and Couples, perhaps out of some pact with King Kong, crashed it to the far rear of the green.
He took a 4 there, which means that he was about to play the next 15 holes in eight birdies and seven pars. In the record book, his 64 deserves an asterisk: it was done with mostly 3-woods off the tee. Couples was engaging in sophisticated course management, which is the way a Thursday round should be played. You are trying to get the feel of the course, not get its number. That can come later.
As a result of Couples being a manager, not an attacker, his trouble shots were not troublesome. At the 10th, a tensionless par 5, he pushed his drive right. He was 5 under par, after making the turn in 31, and looking confident.
"It was the weirdest shot I hit all day," he said of the push. "I had about 245 to the front edge. The guys in front of us were on the green. I took out a 3-wood because I thought I could run it up there and maybe get it through the bunker or in the bunker. But I didn't think that was too smart with the water on the right , and I took a 1-iron out. My caddie and I decided to lay it up. I took a 4-iron out of the rough and hit it hard and hit it low. It ran onto the green about 15 feet away."
When in overdrive, overspin sometimes results. Couples missed the eagle putt, but he left the green 6 under. At the 11th hole, a bend to the left through the pines, he drove well and hit a 9-iron to a makeable four feet. He looked ready to get into serious defacement of par. He lipped the putt. Had it spun in, a 62 or 61 was not beyond the sightlines.
By now, the red numbers of the leader board had brought to Couples a midmorning gallery of a few hundred, the largest on the course considering he began with little more than caddie, scorekeeper and sign-carrier. On the back nine, the gallery came to see electricity, but was treated to the sight of batteries recharging. Couples has not won this year: "So far, I haven't had much to look at." In 1985, he played in 26 events, but with no firsts, seconds, or thirds. He has flashes. Last year, Couples shot a course-record 63 in the Tournament Players Championship at Eagle Trace in Florida.
With $171,000 in 1985 earnings, it has been more modest slide than slump for him. He tells of meeting Wednesday night with some of his money people: "There's a company I was playing for that wasn't happy because I wasn't getting on TV, and a few other things. It kind of ticked me off a little . . . That's not why I went out and played well today, but I can go back and tell them that's why."
Throughout the round, Couples kept himself in a positive frame of mind. He conferred regularly with his caddie. On the 15th hole, a well-trapped par 5, he bashed a drive 100 yards ahead of Archer's strong effort. Only a 4-iron was left to the green. He went 7 under par. At 16, the par 3 where he won the tournament in a playoff in 1983, Couples had a 20-footer for two, but left it inches short. At 17, after a pushed 3-wood, he left an 8-iron an inexplicable 10 yards short. He would chip up for par, about the only time he had to call on his scrambling talents. Most of the day was the rarefied kind when the irons were stiff to the pin, three-putt greens were eliminated (he had 28 putts altogether) and no matter where the grain is, it lies with you.
For sure, Couples knew that what a course like Congressional gives, it can take away. It was in 1976 that Tom Weiskopf led the first round of the PGA with a 65. The next day, he lead-piped a 74, and was no threat to anyone after another poor round on Saturday. Couples, on tour for five years after college at the University of Houston, has been chastened enough to avoid any cockiness. His 64, he said, "was just one round. You can't look back, and I gotta go play tomorrow, and try to play well again."
Several times, Couples took the pin when Archer's 18-year-old caddie momentarily forgot. That kind of gentlemanliness -- one kid going easy with another -- was worthy of another asterisk.