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Texas own Fred Couples ready for a Master's run

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Still, Couples considers his buddy Phil Mickelson the favorite to win the Masters. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup.com
Fred Couples club
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HOUSTON — It'd be easy to think that the crowds at the Shell Houston Open roar a little louder for Fred Couples because he's a proud University of Houston golf product. But the truth is, galleries everywhere scream for Freddie.

The 52-year-old Couples is popular wherever he tees it up.

Couples has plenty of fans in the media as well — and he thinks some of those are getting carried away. For Couples finds himself being touted as a "sleeper" and "dark horse" to win next week's Masters as he makes the rounds at Redstone Golf Club. Thirty one players in the Masters field are playing in the Shell Houston Open and none of them outside of Phil Mickelson figure to draw as much attention as a man in his fifth decade who hasn't won a Major since 1992.

 He's spent the last few days dismissing his Masters chances, almost laughing at any idea of walking away with another green jacket. 

No matter. Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger is declaring Couples "his sleeper pick" at Augusta National. And he's hardly the only voice forecasting more Masters magic for Freddie.

Bamberger reasons that Couples is "feeling great." Couples will not deny that.

He won on the Champions Tour, the place where old men swing easy, just last week. He loves being in Houston. His back is as tame as it's been for a while.

Couples just isn't sure any of that makes him anything close to a legitimate threat to the Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroys or Phil Mickelsons of the big boy Tour. So he's spent the last few days dismissing his Masters chances, almost laughing at any idea of walking away with another green jacket.

But there is Couples sinking a long birdie putt on his first hole in the Shell, matching the feat of his playing partner Mickelson in the tournament's marquee group. Rain and lightning drove him — and everyone else — off the course not long after. Couples and Mickelson only finished three holes, with both standing at one-under they had a long Friday ahead of them.

Marathon Day

On a wet, gloomy day at Redstone when it looked like even some of the biggest white tents might get washed away, Couples' putt is as significant as anything. Before water attacked the course, the morning groups mounted their own assaults.

After a seven-under 65 in which he birdied eight of the first 15 holes, Swede Carl Pettersson called the Redstone greens "the best" the Tour's played on all year. Sure the course is set up to mimic Augusta in some ways, but Redstone's putting surfaces aren't nearly as tricky as Augusta's even when they're running close to a 12 and 1/2 on the stimpmeter. They'll be plenty of low, low scores by Sunday.

 A sleeper? Please, UH's golf pride is six years older than Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear won his last Masters. 

Those who want to win might have to match the 20-under that Mickelson put up last year with the Final Four threatening to overshadow everything else in Houston.

Besides Pettersson, the Argentine who has fallen in love with Houston (Angel Cabrera) also stands at seven under already. The Woodlands-living Jeff Maggert and the eccentric son of an NFL punter Ricky Barnes both completed their first rounds at six under. Lee Westwood — the highest-ranked golfer in the field at No. 3 in the world — is in good position as well after finishing a first round 68.

The players with a full round in figure to have an advantage over those who will have to scramble to try and get in as many as 36 holes on Friday with play set to resume at 7:30 a.m.

But Couples knows how absurd this talk of holding an edge can get. Especially when it comes to Augusta, where he'll be playing his 28th Masters next week.

A sleeper? Please, UH's golf pride is six years older than Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear won his last Masters.

Instead Couples picks that youngster — 41-year-old Mickelson — as his choice.

"Augusta National is his playground," Couples said. "It is for me, too. If that's how you look at the place, you're always going to play well. I would consider Phil to be a favorite every year. You get the Rory McIlroys and Phils that are capable of shooting 66, 67."

Couples doesn't consider himself capable of going that low on the toughest courses anymore. Or at least, he's not going to admit to ever thinking that. A Masters dark horse?

How wonderfully absurd.

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