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Friday April 16th, 2021 6:34AM

At the Masters, past champions are welcomed back to field

By Tim Reynolds
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Fred Couples was playing a practice round at Augusta National this week, with the other members of his foursome all sharing a few things in common.

None of them was even half his age.

They all bombed their tee shots past his.

And they listened to every piece of advice he had.

“Well, I’m old,” Couples said.

Among the many perks that come with winning the Masters is this: Champions are invited back for life, and that means it isn’t uncommon to see players compete into their 60s and even 70s at Augusta National. There are 12 players in this year’s Masters field who wouldn’t have otherwise qualified had it not been for that lifetime pass they got for winning years ago.

Bernhard Langer was 63 when he made the cut last fall, becoming the oldest ever to play the weekend at the Masters. The 1985 and 1993 champion is back this year, as are fellow 63-year-olds Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, 62-year-old Larry Mize and Couples — a 61-year-old who went gray long ago and doesn’t exactly overpower with length off the tee anymore.

He played Monday with Xander Schauffele, Max Homa and Patrick Cantlay. If they were hitting 9-iron into some greens, Couples was hitting 6-iron.

Based on the results, Couples — the 1992 Masters champion — wasn’t exactly at a disadvantage.

“We beat up on Xander and Max,” Cantlay said. “Not surprising Fred birdied 16 and 18. We had a great time.”

The Masters embraces history like few other sporting events, paying respectful tribute to players and winners from the past, and that’s one of the reasons players like Couples are still held in such high regard.

Mize — the 1987 winner — will play in his 38th consecutive Masters, Lyle in his 37th; only six players in the tournament’s storied history have had longer streaks. Lyle, whose Masters win came in 1988, will become the 12th player to play in a total of 40 Masters. Langer is playing his 38th, Couples in his 36th.

There are no delusions. They aren’t here expecting to have defending champion Dustin Johnson slip a green jacket over their shoulders in Butler Cabin on Sunday evening.

They’re here to play 36, maybe 72 holes if everything goes right. They’re here to see old friends and make new ones. They’re here to see the azaleas and tell stories at the Champions dinner and hear those cheers echoing around one of golf’s most hallowed grounds again.

“I don’t think there’s still a chance of winning, obviously,” said 1994 and 1999 Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal, 55. “There is not that chance, but it’s always fantastic to be back here. This is a very special place for anybody that has won here, and that’s what really brings us here. The Champions dinner on Tuesday, seeing the place again, the flowers, the good weather this year. So there’s a lot of reasons why we should be coming here.

“I mean, obviously, the golf course is beating us pretty well, but that is secondary at this time of our lives.”

That said, there also may be no course that rewards experience and institutional knowledge of the place quite like Augusta National. Time teaches what to do at the Masters and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do at the Masters.

“You learn a lot when you play previous Masters," two-time runner-up Lee Westwood said. “That's why I think you've got a lot of repeat winners around here and the likes of Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer, people who have played it over the years a lot, can contend and can get themselves into position — because you learn where not to hit it."

Woosnam, the 1991 champion, bid farewell to the Masters two years ago and believed he was retired. But surgery to relieve back pain made him think about returning at least one more time, and he’s in the field this week.

“I’m just looking forward to getting out there and enjoying two more rounds,” Woosnam said. “Hopefully, if it goes well, I can maybe come back for a few more years.”

Vijay Singh, 58, is back this year thanks to that lifetime invite that came courtesy of his win in 2000. So is 2003 champion Mike Weir, 50. Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson — still a PGA Tour regular even at 50 — wouldn’t be here this week had he not been a past champion.

And it’s not just the 50-and-over set benefiting from that perk. Zach Johnson is 45, 14 years removed from his win. Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 winner, is 36. Danny Willett, a winner just five years ago, is 33. Strange as it sounds, if they hadn’t won at Augusta National previously, they wouldn’t have qualified this year.

They can come back for as long as they’d like. Nobody will mind, the same way that nobody minds that players like Couples are at Augusta National this year — and likely for at least a couple more years, too.

“The competition is for myself to play the course the best I can,” Couples said. “And when that becomes havoc, then I will have probably played my last Masters.”

He was asked what keeps him coming back.

“The fact that they let me,” Couples said. “You know, that’s an honor to be here. I can still play.”

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