LUTZ — Fred Couples never saw himself playing on the Champions Tour. Not because he thought it was beneath him, but because he never thought his body would hold out until he was 50.
"When I was 40 or 41, I was telling everyone that I had no interest (in the Champions Tour)," Couples said. "I didn't think I'd still be playing competitive golf at 50. But I kept playing — and playing pretty well. Then when I got out here, I felt I could win, and I have."
Couples, bad back and all, has made an impact on the Champions Tour like few other players. He has entered four full-field events since turning 50. He finished second in his first tournament in Hawaii and won the next three tournaments he entered. He will try to make it four straight starting today, when he tees it up at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am.
The only player to win four straight Champions Tour events is Chi Chi Rodriguez, in 1987. The highest round Couples has had on the senior circuit is 68. He is 77 under par to start his Champions Tour career.
"I wish he'd keep his butt on the junior tour," said Hall of Famer Tom Watson, 60. "But I say this every year, the beautiful thing about this tour is there is a new story to write about every year. There is a new star coming onto the tour, and this year that star is Freddie."
The fact that Couples is in town is a bit surprising. This is his fourth straight tournament. He finished sixth at the Masters last week, and he rarely plays after his favorite tournament. And because Couples has a notoriously balky back, many thought he would sit out at least a week.
Even Couples wasn't sure if he was going to enter the tournament. He said he mentioned to his caddy on Monday of Masters week that he might play in the Outback. But even by Friday afternoon, hours before the registration deadline, Couples wasn't so sure.
"On Friday, I played early and went back and just laid around and didn't feel very well," Couples said. "I thought if this kept up I would have to withdraw, which is not the best thing to do. But I started feeling better, and it worked out."
Couples arrived at TPC Tampa Bay on Thursday morning to play in a pro-am. It was his first look at the course, and he shot 68. He plans to play next week at the Legends of Golf in Savannah, Ga., with Jay Haas, as well as the week after at the PGA Tour's Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C. That would be six straight tournaments for Couples.
Known as one of the most laid-back players on tour, and as somebody who cherishes his couch time, Couples playing six straight tournaments is almost unheard of.
"I've been on the tour 30 years, and I've never overextended myself," Couples said. "I just need to be careful. If I really start to feel bad, I've got to make sure I don't keep playing."
With his mind always on his ailing back, Couples continues to play through various levels of pain. He said he feels just fine and sees no reason to shut it down because he is playing so well. He has won $931,000 on the Champions Tour.
"Reportedly he has a bad back," Champions Tour veteran Hale Irwin said. "I think that's some hocus-pocus myself. Actually, I've seen an MRI of Fred's back, and it looks like a road map. But aside from the back, Fred's been playing so well. He seems to be playing better than he ever has."
Fellow Champions Tour player Nick Price struggled for a few years before winning his first tournament, last year's Outback event. He's not shocked about what Couples has done.
"Doesn't surprise me at all," he said. "Freddie is very much an inspirational player. When he's inspired, he plays great. That's been the story his whole career. It's been great for the tour. You know, we can always do with players like Freddie."
Before joining the Champions Tour, Couples was in a bit of a drought. His last PGA victory was the 2003 Houston Open.
But like many players before Couples, turning 50 means being able to snap the winless drought.
With a chance to tie history this week, Couples said he is just going to play golf.
"I'm out here to win, let's not sugarcoat it," he said. "But I'm not looking at it as trying to win four in a row. If I don't win, I'll be right back at it next week."
And how long will he grind on the Champions Tour?
"I'll probably only do this for three or four years," Couples said. "We'll see what happens when I get to be about 55."