Fred Couples enjoying Open success

SYDNEY -- If one day is any indication, Fred Couples is not simply in Australia to chaperone his players in advance of next week's Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.

The U.S. captain opened the Australian Open on Thursday with a 5-under-par 67 that included two closing birdies at The Lakes Golf Club, where he was among the early leaders.

"This is probably the best ball-striking round I had all year," said Couples, 51, who plays most of his golf on the Champions Tour -- although he tied for seventh at the Northern Trust Open and 15th at the Masters.

"On the front side I hit it close every hole. I played really well. I don't know if I can accomplish that tomorrow, but today was a very, very good round. I'm not just here to get ready for next week. I want to compete. It sounds stupid, but at any age I think I can still play, although it's a lot easier on the Champions Tour."

Couples, a 15-time winner on the PGA Tour, trailed Australian Jarrod Lyle (65) and Americans Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney, who both shot 66 in the first round. A field of 156 is competing, including Tiger Woods, who had just teed off as Couples was finishing. Woods shot 68 in his opening round.

Eight of the 12 U.S. team members for next week's Presidents Cup in Melbourne are competing in the Australian Open, including Johnson, Woods and Bubba Watson, who shot 68.

One who is not here is Steve Stricker, a two-time winner this year who has been suffering from a disc injury in his neck since September. There had been doubts about Stricker's availability for the Presidents Cup, but Couples said -- barring a setback -- he expects Stricker to be fine next week.

Stricker headed to Arizona from his Wisconsin home earlier this week to practice and will arrive in Melbourne on Sunday.

"I've been in touch with him almost every other day and told him I was going to leave him alone," Couples said. "He told me, 'I'm coming, my arm would have to fall off not to.' I said, 'Well, if it falls off in Arizona, call me, because I need to get another guy over here.'"

Couples has until Wednesday evening next week to replace an injured player. PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, who was passed over for a captain's pick in favor of Woods and Bill Haas, would be the logical choice, although logistics would make it difficult as he is not in Australia.

A fallback would be to have either of his assistant captains, Jay Haas or John Cook, play. The rules stipulate that any available player could fill in, and Couples prefers that than to having to have an international team player sit.

"That wouldn't be fair to anyone on their team," Couples said. "But Steve is fine. I don't think we'll even get there. He told me it's feeling good, that's he's much stronger than he was earlier."

For now, Couples said he will try to concentrate on his own game, and worry about the Presidents Cup closer to the weekend.

"When I get on the course, I don't want to embarrass myself,'' he said. "I don't want to be thinking of pairings and slice one in the water. I'm paying attention to what I'm doing. That's my goal. Come Sunday night I'll pay attention to the fellas. Hopefully I don't beat any of them by the end of the week.''

Bob Harig is the golf writer for ESPN.com.