By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
SAMMAMISH — Sunday afternoon was supposed to be a joyous culmination of Fred Couples’ homecoming party.
On the 18th green at Sahalee Country Club, amidst the din created by thousands of adoring fans, Couples was expected to roll in a final putt to win the United States Senior Open for his first victory in the Puget Sound area since he was a Seattle schoolboy.
It was the outcome huge pro-Couples crowds were begging to see. But that hoped-for script was undone by one horrendous Couples chip shot and by the determined play of rival Bernhard Langer, who pulled away early in their head-to-head showdown and held on for a three-shot victory.
For Langer, the native of Germany and a two-time Masters winner, it was his second senior major championship in eight days, following last weekend’s Senior British Open in Carnoustie, Scotland.
“It’s hard to believe I won two back-to-back majors with an eight-hour time change in between, and on two very challenging golf courses,” said the 52-year-old Langer, who earned a $470,000 paycheck for his victory.
“I’m very pleased,” he said. “I probably played some of my best golf these last two weeks from tee to green, as well as on the green.”
Langer and Couples, paired in Sunday’s final twosome, had started the day with matching 5-under-par totals, five shots better than the next nearest contenders. Couples then eased in front with a birdie on the first hole, prompting a great roar from the throngs that followed the two men throughout the day.
But those cheers turned to groans minutes later on the 508-yard, par-5 No. 2 hole.
It began with a Couples drive that ended up in the first cut of rough. Not wanting to risk a long second shot over a greenside pond, he chose to lay up and was left with an easy pitch of about 65 yards to the pin.
Then, proving that even the world’s bests golfers are fallible, Couples made a hacker-like swing, smacking the club head against the sun-baked fairway and dropping the ball into the water instead of onto the green.
Couples took a drop and sent his next shot over the green. He then chipped on and two-putted for a triple-bogey 8 on a hole that had produced twice the number of birdies (131) during the tournament than any other.
“The ground was hard and I just totally chunked it,” Couples said. “To lay up there and make an 8 … it was a huge blunder. It certainly put a damper on the day pretty early, especially after making a birdie on No. 1.
“If I could walk out there tomorrow, I’d go for the green, no matter where I hit it (off the tee),” he said. “And I think I’d beat an 8, that’s for sure.”
Compounding the misfortune, Langer birdied the hole — his first of three in a bogey-free round — and the leaderboard swung from a one-shot Couples edge to a three-shot Langer lead.
When Langer birdied No. 6, the margin was four strokes and the odds of a hometown victory by Couples began to wane.
He halved the deficit on the back nine with birdies on the 14th and 16th holes, but still trailed by two heading to No. 18. He landed both his tee shot and second shot right of the fairway, effectively ending his chances of victory, and he finished with a bogey that left him in second place by three shots.
Langer, meanwhile, was absolutely steady on Sunday, as he was throughout the tournament. He was the only player in the field to have four sub-par rounds on the 6,866-yard, par-70 layout. No other player had more than two.
“He never made a mistake,” said Couples, who settled for the runner-up prize of $280,000.
“(Langer) is playing at a super-high level right now,” agreed Olin Browne, who tied for third after closing with a 5-under 65. “He took it to everybody over (in Scotland), and then he came over here and he’s obviously (firing) on all cylinders right now.”
Langer refused to let himself be distracted early in the round, either by his one-shot deficit on the first hole and then his sudden three-stroke margin on the very next hole.
“I was three shots ahead at that point,” he said, “but that’s nothing when you have 16 holes to go and you’re playing against Fred Couples. So I knew I had to stay focused and play quality golf.”
Down the stretch, he said, “I putted well, I chipped pretty good and my bunker game was good. I felt calm and I just had a good feeling. I had a lot of confidence in my game.”
Browne and John Cook tied for third with 2-under totals of 278. Brown shot a 5-under 65, the low round of the day and tying Couples, who shot 65 on Saturday, for the low round of the tournament. Cook posted a 3-under 67.
Tom Kite had a chance to finish third, either in a tie or outright, but suffered a grievous 9 on the 375-yard, par-4 16th hole. He ended up tied for eighth.