For Couples, it's good to be back

Fred Couples once had a pretty interesting explanation for all his offseason success in golf's Silly Season. He attributed it to the fact that, for the most part, his opponents in these hit-and-giggle tournaments were not practicing for them.

Then again, neither was Couples.

But, hey, if they weren't working on their games, it certainly gave him a better chance.
And that says something about the talent Couples possesses -- and some of the great golf we've been denied because of a bad back that has robbed him of so much more success when it matters.

Couples probably didn't mean it this way, but his conjecture suggests that his talent can carry him a long way. How much better might things have been without the various injuries that have plagued him for most of the past 13 years, denying him practice time and the chance to compete?

"I was very, very lucky to play," said Couples, who was limited to two PGA Tour starts this season. "[My career] could have been over 13, 14 years ago, and it wasn't. … As far as looking back … I really don't look at it that way. I mean, I don't think I've won as many tournaments as I could have, but if that was the case, I would have won them."

Classic Couples.

Perhaps his game is not the only thing that is rusty.

This weekend, he returns to the LG Skins Game for the 14th time. A five-time winner of the event, he will go up against Stephen Ames, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich.

Last year, Couples made 10 birdies in this event, a performance that gave him some hope for 2007. It didn't last long. His back has given him so much trouble that his last meaningful round of golf came, remarkably, at the Masters, where he made the cut for the 21st straight year, shooting a final-round 71 to tie for 30th.

Before the Masters, he missed the cut at the FBR Open, then tried to play at Pebble Beach, where his back gave out on the putting green before the first round. He also withdrew from the Nissan Open, and did all he could to get ready for Augusta.

"I got through that week, and it was really painful and not a whole lot of fun," Couples said. "I just said, I've had enough. Since then, I've gone out and played a couple of rounds here and there and been working on my back … I'm working on trying to get to where I feel a little more consistent."

Couples, 48, has 15 career PGA Tour victories, including the 1992 Masters. But just five have come since he first suffered a back injury on the driving range in 1994 at Doral, where he was leading the tournament but had to withdraw before even teeing off for the final round.

"It can be the smallest thing," he said. "It could be getting out of bed; it could be walking off the treadmill; it could be hitting a 7-iron out of the rough, or it could be leaning over a car. These are all things that I've done, and there's no rhyme or reason. It just wears on you."

Couples has been to numerous back specialists and physical trainers. He has had surgery recommended and discouraged. He has stretched and contorted so many times through the years, you'd think he would be an inch taller.

And yet, when it comes to golf, he never quite knows.

The fact that he's been getting ready for the Skins Game is a good sign. Couples also plans to play in the Merrill Lynch Shootout and the Target World Challenge. After all, these are the events in which he thrives. At the Skins Game, Couples has earned $3.9 million -- which is more money than he has earned in all his major championship appearances combined ($3.5 million).

Over the years, he has won offseason events called the JCPenney Classic, the Shark Shootout, the World Cup, the Dunhill Cup, the Hyundai Team Matches, the Par-3 Shootout and, of course, the Skins Game.

Other than his belief that the others don't practice, Couples has no real explanation for his winning ways at this time of year.

"It's just enjoyable; most of them are fun events," he said. "And not everyone can play."

What Couples meant, of course, is that not everyone is invited. He routinely is sought because of his amazing skill and talent -- attributes we are not at all assured of seeing beyond this weekend.

"I am not optimistic at all," said Couples when asked about 2008. "I'm day-to-day, week-to-week. That's just kind of the way it's been. But I feel good. I think only time will tell. … I'm just trying to get the competition in and try to say hello to everybody … Right now, I want to get to the Bob Hope [in January] and be able to play five rounds and see where I can go from there."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.