Contemplating a Fred Couples run

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Injections. Ibuprofen. Those are the ways Fred Couples combats his bad back. A better form of medicine was simply arriving at Augusta National.

The 1992 Masters champion is doing it again here, climbing the leaderboard at 51 years old despite a balky back that gives him so much trouble he'd rather hit a long iron into a green than a wedge.

"He can't bend over," said Joe LaCava, Couples' longtime caddie. "It bothers him over the ball more than anything, especially putting. He'd rather hit a 3-iron than a wedge. And on these hills, with the lies he gets here, it's tough."

Not tough enough, however, to keep Couples from shooting one of the rounds of the day at Augusta National, a 4-under-par 68 that had him tied for seventh, 5 shots behind 36-hole leader Rory McIlroy and within striking distance of the top spot.

Couples will be playing with Rickie Fowler on Saturday. The 23-year-old was just 3 when Couples won at Augusta.

Really, it should be no surprise. Couples finished sixth here last year. He tied for third in 2006, playing the final round with winner Phil Mickelson. He's missed just two cuts in 26 appearances.

So bad back or not ...

"Here, I would be playing even as a cripple; I love this place," Couples said. "I shouldn't say that; as a guy with a horrible back, I would get it around. I did it a couple of years, and I just love playing here.

"I wait the whole year to come and play here. This is my favorite event. I've had great luck here. Had a couple other chances to win that I didn't. And I hope to play several more years."

The story is an old one for Couples, so a quick recap: He was leading the PGA Tour event at Doral through three rounds in 1994 and was warming up on Sunday when he suddenly dropped to the ground.

LaCava, who has caddied for Couples since 1990, was there that day and said the situation was "brutal." Couples had a tear in the outer layer of a disc in his lower back and missed three months.

Only five of Couples' 15 PGA Tour titles have occurred since then, despite numerous remedies, potions, back specialists, exercises and other attempts to stay upright.

Last week, he needed an injection to deal with the pain at the Shell Houston Open. "I don't know because they shot me from behind, and I'm glad," he said, unaware of how big the needles were.

Here, he swallows Aleve.

All the while, he's bombing his tee shots down the fairway and looking anything but a guy into his sixth decade.

"No, he doesn't," said Steve Stricker, a relative youngster at 44 who played with Couples during the first two rounds. "He was hitting it past Luke [Donald] and I, not that we're long hits by any means.

"He's still got plenty of length. He can step on it if he wants to. And he's got a good attitude. I think you have to have an easy-going attitude around here."

Couples made a run at the Northern Trust Open title earlier this year at Riviera, another of his favorite tournaments and courses, actually holding the lead early in the final round before tying for seventh.

A four-time winner last year on the Champions Tour, he's played just two 50-and-over events this season, his best finish a tie for fifth at the Toshiba Classic.

"He's a great lag putter, which you have to be here," LaCava said. "He can hit it high and soft, which is big on these greens."

It's probably too early to get caught up in such things, but Couples would become the oldest winner of a major championship with a victory here and, of course, the oldest winner of the Masters.

The man who holds that distinction currently is Jack Nicklaus, who 25 years ago captured his sixth and final green jacket at 46. Couples was there that day, a 26-year-old superstar in waiting who tied for 31st in his fourth Masters.

Couples had finished his round on the 18th when Nicklaus birdied the ninth hole to start him on his amazing 7 under stretch in 10 holes to win.

"I ran for the car and then went to the house and watched it," Couples recalled. "People started coming over as it got more and more exciting."

Couples in contention come Sunday would be pretty thrilling, too.

A victory?

"It would be the biggest upset in golf history," he said. "Are you kidding?"

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.