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Pride, quiet intensity still is there for Fred Couples

It's still hard to believe that Fred Couples is nearly 51 years old, despite his thatch of graying hair and a back that can be as troublesome as an old car.

He has seemingly remained forever young, ambling along in the sunshine, blessed with a golf swing from the gods and a natural coolness that can't be cultivated nor copied.

It's been more than 18 years since Couples first slipped on his green jacket at Augusta National, having won the Masters when his golf ball stopped on the creek bank fronting the 12th green, a stroke of good fortune that changed his career.

When Couples won the Masters, he was the most popular golfer in the world, turning grown men into teenyboppers when they'd watch him play. Golf fans don't typically scream but they screamed for Freddie in his prime.

Take a poll today asking golfers to pick any pro in the world they could play 18 holes with and I promise Couples will finish in the top five.

When he tees it up at 12:20p.m. today in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, Couples will be there to win, not just to be Fred Couples. The fire, always hidden below the surface, and the pride that elevated him to the top of the world rankings remains.

"I get the same buzz I always have because I don't like to embarrass myself playing golf," said Couples, who now lives in Charlotte. "When I can't break an egg, I'll stop playing.

"But when I tee off (today), whether it's in front of 200 people or 2,000, I want to hit quality shots. That's where I get the buzz."

It's no coincidence that interest in the Champions Tour has surged since Couples arrived this year. It has always been a tour built more on its stars than on the golf, though the level of competition remains exceptionally high.

The SAS Championship is like a traveling Hall of Fame exhibit with a field that includes, among others, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Curtis Strange, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hale Irwin, Mark Calcavecchia, Tom Kite and Hal Sutton.

Sure, they bring memories, but they bring more than that. They bring a balance that's often hard to find on the PGA Tour. They still grind on the course, quietly cursing bogeys and riding the wave created by three straight birdies. But they also take time to look around, to smile and to enjoy the crowd rather than seek refuge from it.

They've traded trying to make 36-hole cuts for three-day tournament weekends that start late and end early.

Couples memorably dueled Tom Watson in his first Champions Tour tournament, finishing second, and then won three straight tournaments, ending a seven-year winless spell. He hasn't won since but he's been in contention in virtually every one of the 12 senior events he's played.

He lost a playoff for the PGA Senior Championship, had a chance to win the U.S. Senior Open and has played well enough to be considered for a Ryder Cup captain's pick. He finished sixth at the Masters in April, evidence that age hasn't seriously dulled his skill and his tender back has been good to him.

"It's been an absolute blast," Couples said of his first year with the senior set. "I'm seeing all these guys I haven't seen in such a long time. I'm seeing guys like Tom Purtzer and Bobby Wadkins, who I probably haven't seen in 10 years or so.

"Winning certainly helps. It's still big-time golf, but it's laid back, which certainly suits my style. I enjoy it."

Fifty, almost 51, has rarely looked so good.