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Couples shines with star group

17th Toshiba Classic

Defending champion perseveres through back issues, playing with Watson and Crenshaw.

March 11, 2011|By Matt Szabo, matthew.szabo@latimes.com
(Kent Treptow / Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — Fred Couples used his golf club for much more than striking the ball in the first round of the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club.

He held it straight above his head Friday, constantly stretching out. He also held it behind his shoulders in the stance that Bo Jackson made famous in a poster about 20 years ago, holding a baseball bat.

Couples' relevance is not limited to that time span. He's the defending champion here, winning the title last year as part of a banner first year on the Champions Tour. But Couples, the 2010 Champions Tour Rookie of the Year, came into this year's tournament as a question mark – at least in his own mind – with a back that doesn't always want to cooperate.

"If [Thursday] was any indication, I won't break par unless I putt like a crazy man," Couples said after Thursday's Pro-Am finished up.

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On the first day of the actual tournament, Couples didn't need to putt like a crazy man. He's still one of the biggest drivers on the 50-and-older tour, and he fought through his back stiffness to post a five-under par 66. He's tied for sixth, six strokes back of Nick Price, who shot a Champions Tour-tying record 60 in the sunny, but mild conditions.

A La Quinta resident, Couples used to live in Newport Beach but said last year was the first time he played Newport Beach Country Club. He's in contention again this year, scheduled to tee off at 12:14 p.m. in the second round, with Andy Bean and Rod Spittle.

Couples attracted a big crowd in the first round because he's the defending champion, yes, but also because he was in a great group with Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. The three golf legends have won 73 events on the PGA Tour and 17 on the Champions Tour, the lion's share of those (13) by Watson.

Couples, 51, entertained the large gallery of a few hundred people in the first round. He wore a tan hat, sweater and slacks as the day began, but took off the sweater for a green shirt by No. 3. Couples wants to earn plenty of green again this year, and he birdied two of the first three holes, including the par-five No. 3. On that hole, Couples found the front left sand trap but managed to blast a shot to about eight feet, calmly making the putt for birdie.

He also heated up on the back nine, where he had five of his seven birdies and was four-under.

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