SENIOR PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP: Couples closing in on victory
FOX CHAPEL — Fred Couples watched Kenny Perry relentlessly sprint up the leaderboard Saturday in the Senior Players Championship and figured it was time for his putter to start cooperating.
Three birdies over the final five holes restored some order as Couples took a step closer to his first victory of the season.
The Hall of Famer finished with a 3-under 67 and was at 15-under 195 at rain-soaked and toothless Fox Chapel, two strokes clear of the hard-charging Perry. Couples already has three runner-up finishes this season.
He has no plans to make it four.
“If I go out and play well, I have a great shot at winning,” Couples said. “I’m certainly not going to be thinking about second place.”
It appeared that’s all the rest of the field was playing for after Couples ripped off seven birdies in 11 holes of the second round Friday before a midafternoon downpour halted play for the day.
The deluge cooled off Couples a bit. He two-putted from 60 feet on the par-3 third when he returned to the course Saturday morning, then made five straight pars before finishing his round off with a birdie on the par-4 ninth for an 8-under 62.
Tying the record for the lowest score ever in a major on the Champions Tour should have provided Couples with some breathing room. Instead, Perry made it close.
Perry began the day as speck in Couples’ rearview mirror before the Kentucky player made three birdies and an eagle over the final six holes of the second round for a 7-under 63. He backed it up six hours later with another flawless 63, using his length off the tee and a new putter to chase down the front-running Couples.
After a lethargic 71 in the first round left him frustrated, Perry switched putters to one with more loft hoping it would help keep the ball online on the soggy and cleat-marked greens.
The decision paid off handsomely as Perry set a tournament record for the lowest score in consecutive rounds. The combined 14-under 126 Perry posted in the second and third rounds is two better than the 128 Jack Nicklaus shot in 1990 when the tournament was held in Dearborn, Mich.
Perry joked he was inspired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He watched from the second row on Friday night as Pittsburgh crushed the Milwaukee Brewers 10-3 to move to 49-30 on the season, the best record in baseball.
“It was pretty awesome,” Perry said.
So were most of the scores at the rolling course about 10 miles up the Allegheny River from PNC Park. The rain during the week forced officials to allow players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairways. The quick, treacherous test the players endured during their last visit to Fox Chapel a year ago instead looked like a pitch and putt for longer players like Perry and Couples.
“We played ball-in-hand for three days,” Perry said. “You know, you just see the scores go way down when you let the guys get ball in hand.”
Duffy Waldorf birdied his final two holes for a 66 to remain in striking distance at 11 under. First-round leader John Huston briefly tied Couples for the lead but faltered on the back nine, bogeying the last two holes to shoot 68 and finish five shots back of Couples. Mike Goodes had a 65 to match Huston at 10 under.
Perry didn’t falter, briefly creating a three-way logjam with Couples and Huston when Perry birdied the 12th and Couples three-putted the 10th green for bogey.
The missed opportunity seemed to wake Couples up.
Frustrated he wasn’t taking advantage of the soft conditions that led to Perry’s assault on the par-70 layout, Couples birdied Nos. 14 and 15, then capped his round with a splendid pitch from in front of the left bunker on the par-5 18th, allowing him to roll in a birdie.
Not bad for a guy who insists he was “outplayed” by Huston for most of the day by Huston before the final five holes.
Now Couples heads into today searching for his third major title since joining the Champions Tour in 2010. He won the Senior Players in 2011 at Westchester Country Club in New York and the Senior British Open last year. He was in position to capture the Regions Tradition earlier this month but fell one shot short in a showdown with points leader David Frost.
This time it appears the duel will be with Perry, who is pain-free after dealing with knee problems earlier in the season.
Perry, who has undergone surgery on both knees during his career and takes medicine to deal with arthritis in the joints, called his recovery over the last two weeks “a miracle.” He took a cortisone shot in his left knee recently and has had fluid drained out of the joint, freeing him up to walk the course with relative ease.
“If you have had a need this long stuck in your knee with a big syringe sucking all that junk out of you, that’s not very pleasant,” Perry said. “But once they do it, immediately it gives you relief. The pressure’s off and you can actually bend your knee, you can actually walk.”
Perry will walk alongside Couples on Sunday as Perry looks for the first major title of his 31-year professional career.
“You’re going to see still a lot of good scores tomorrow,” Perry said. “So the guys that are near the lead, at the lead are going to have to play a good round of golf. Somebody’s going to have to shoot a good round tomorrow.”