HUMBLE, Texas Fred Couples is here to see old friends as much as anything.
That's what he says anyway. It has been 20 years since Couples won The Masters and was ranked No. 1 in the world, and at age 52 his prime is fading like a Polaroid on the dashboard.
But he is playing in the Shell Houston Open this weekend at The Tournament Course at Redstone. He attended the University of Houston, he has played the tournament many times, and he likes to come back. That's about it. His last win on the PGA Tour came in 2003 in Houston, and he doesn't expect that to change.
"As far as me thinking I can compete on this tour," he said. "I just do it to come out and see everyone."
And yet there is recent evidence Couples is not finished as a competitive PGA golfer. Just days ago he won a Champions Tour event, the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, shooting 14-under. That, coupled with his recovery from a back injury that cost him most of the 2011 season, has created a sense heading into this week's tuneup for next week's Master's that Couples may have one last run in him.
A strong showing in Houston would inflate that bubble. Couples sees a bubble of a different variety.
"It's like winning your conference as Vermont," he said, "and then going in there and beating Duke."
Couples says he is no longer good enough to win The Masters, and doesn't think he's good enough to win it's the Houston Open either. Might as well forget about that big win in Mississippi, he says.
"Now I'm playing with the big boys," he said.
For most of two decades, Couples was one of the biggest, and typically he has played well in Houston, where he was on the golf team at the University of Houston in the late 70s. He finished fourth in the Houston Open in 2008 and third in 2009. That year he felt particularly good about the way he had been playing, and, thus, about his chances the next week at Augusta.
And then The Masters came.
"It was the only time I've ever missed the cut there," Couples said.
That remains his last big run in golf. He joined the Champions Tour in 2010 and thinks it's the perfect place for him.
The players are good, just not as young, and the courses are challenging, just not as long. Nonetheless, Couples still wants to get ready for The Masters and considers Redstone a fine place to do so.
"Really it's a good course for guys to picture shots," he said. "You try and cut a few tee shots, you try and draw a few. It's a very long course, it's got a lot of water, it's got a lot of holes you can have a disaster on, too."
So yes, Couples is using this weekend to prepare for next weekend. He still thinks he can play. His back feels good. He likes to see all his old buddies. But the photo of Fred Couples as Master's champion gets a little more sunfaded with each passing year.
"If I go out and play really, really well here," he said, "I maybe can finish up in the top 20, 25."