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Thursday, July 28, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fred Couples Has Gained Worldwide Fame As A Professional Golfer, But The Seattle Native Never Has Forgotten His Competitive Roots At Jefferson Park Golf Course. His Former Playing Partners Say Couples Plays On A Bigger Stage And Dresses Better Than He Used To, But Remains Largely Unchanged From The Days When He Rode His Bike From His Parents' Beacon Hill Home To The Course. -- Remembering His Golfing Roots

Fred Couples took three of the world's best golfers - Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Nick Price - for $240,000 in a skins game on a beautiful riverside course near Montreal.

While Couples' performance in Sunday's Canadian skins game was impressive, it was a familiar sight for folks around here.

People like Meredith "Lightning" Harrison, Jay Turner and Wilbert Ponder remember when Fred Couples was Freddy Couples, a barely 5-feet-tall wunderkind honing his game at Seattle's Jefferson Park Golf Course.

Back then, when Couples wasn't shagging balls at the Jefferson driving range or whipping players his own age, he played quarter-a-hole skins games against Jefferson's best players.

Some of Couples' Jefferson Park partners were just a few years older than he was, such as Turner, who worked with Couples at the driving range. But most were old enough to be his father - men such as Harrison, now 73, and Ponder, 79, and Hans Turner, Jay's father who died this year.

Like Couples, they have maintained links to Jefferson.

Harrison is a course marshall at Jefferson. Ponder teaches kids in the Jefferson-based Fir State Golf Club. Jay Turner is a club manufacturer; his company, Red Bird Sports, is little more than a long drive and a solid 3-wood south of Jefferson's first tee.

Couples said some of his fondest memories involve 12-player skins games on Jefferson's short nine against adults.

"In the old days, Fred would have gotten excited about winning $2 or $3," Harrison said. "With so many guys, it was hard as heck to win a hole outright."

The adults weren't able to exploit Couples' youth.

"He was very young," Harrison said, "but he was very confident, cocky, just like the rest of us. He was able to hold his own."

Jefferson Park was a proving ground because Couples was always able to play against the course's best players. He traces much of his professional success to the people he spent time with during his youth.

"I thought my game improved when I played against people who were better than me," Couples said. "I was always the tag-along kid."

Which explains why Couples is staging the Piper Jaffray Youth Clinic at Jefferson on Saturday. The clinic will be followed by the Ernst Championship, a 36-hole tournament featuring Couples and 26 PGA Tour stars at Overlake Country Club in Medina on Monday and Tuesday.

"People at Jefferson helped me a lot," Couples said. "When I was 13, I thought it was great to play against guys who ranged in age from 17 to 50. I'm really looking forward to the clinic because I'll see old friends, and it's a way to give something back."

His former playing partners say Couples plays on a bigger stage and dresses better than he used to, but remains largely unchanged from the days when he rode his bike from his parents' Beacon Hill home to the course.

He's still a confident, dominating player and, when he's in town, still goes to the Jefferson range when he wants to hit a few balls.

Couples said one of the biggest breaks he got came when Steve Cole hired him to shag balls at the range. Couples was 11, Turner was 13. They made $4 a night picking up balls after the range closed.

They were allowed to hit as many range balls as they wanted during non-peak hours and play a few free rounds.

"We used to sneak on the course, too," Couples said. "Sometimes they would kick us off, sometimes they wouldn't."

Ponder says Couples has never forgotten his roots.

"What I always liked about Fred was that he was a down-home kid," Ponder said. "After he won a few junior tournaments, some country clubs around here wanted him to use their courses, but he chose to stay at Jefferson. I always respected him for that.

"And whenever he came back home from college or the Tour for a visit, you would see him with his buddy, Jay Turner."

Turner, who played college golf, said he doubted his friend would have been comfortable with the manufactured homogeneity common at many country clubs. When they played in junior events at area country clubs, Turner said they use to laugh at the way kids from the clubs dressed.

"We never wore polyester or plaid," Turner said. "Usually, we played in shorts and T-shirts. We weren't tattered or dirty, we just looked like average kids instead of little adults."

Couples had lots of role models, but rarely asked how-to questions, Turner said.

"People like my dad, who was a good amateur, and some other good players were always there for Fred, but he seldom needed help with golf," Turner said. "He was gifted."

Couples said it would take hours to name all the people he played with at Jefferson, but offered a partial list of some of the folks who provided examples and competition, headed by Steve Dallas, John Foley, Jabo Ward, Mareno Caso and Scott Williams.

Like most sports-happy youngsters, Turner and Couples spent hours fantasizing about their future careers on the pro tour and the majors they were going to win.

"I remember a time Fred said he wanted to be the next Don Bies," Turner said. "He was probably 13 or 14 when he said it."

By all measures, Couples has exceeded that goal. Not only has he earned close to $7 million on the PGA Tour, but at 18, he beat Bies in a playoff to win the 1978 Washington State Open. Youths attending the clinic might be disappointed if they come expecting detailed instruction on how to hit a ball. Couples said he learned the game by watching and practicing, not by listening to lectures.

"My instructions are simple: Hit it. Chase it. And hit it again," Couples said.

He targets kids in the audience aged 10 to 13 because "they are the ones who look up to people like me. Whether they've played golf before or not, I want those kids to see me having fun playing golf."

No telling what he'd show them if they were willing to put up a quarter a hole.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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