Golf: Couples takes first steps back: US stalwart returns after long lay-off

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JUST 102 days since he was warming up on the range at the Doral Open and felt something explode in his back, Fred Couples returned to competitive golf.

Cheered on by thousands of spectators in the early morning yesterday, Couples completed the first round of the Buick Classic here in one-

under-par 70.

Couples is still easing his way back - he left immediately after completing his round - and, as of yesterday afternoon, had still not gone into the locker-room to open his locker.

He had planned to return to the tour two weeks ago, but postponed it until now after his mother fell ill with cancer and died.

The 1992 Masters champion found that he could live contentedly without the tour during his forced sabbatical, and talks calmly about walking away from the game if his back problems translate into bad golf.

'A back just isn't made to do what we do,' he said. 'The only thing worse than the golf swing would be rodeo.'

Couples' 70 put him five strokes off the lead, a mark set later on by Mike Reid, the short and straight hitter known as Radar for his accuracy. He eagled his final hole for a 65, to take a one-stroke lead over Bob Estes, Dillard Pruitt, John Brodie, Wayne Levi and Steve Pate. Of these only Pate and Levi have qualified to play in the US Open at Oakmont next week.

Conditions were perfect for the players who started in the morning, but the course was still challenging for those not striking the ball accurately.

Seve Ballesteros, a two-time former champion here, was the best European with a level par 71. 'I'm happy, but my short game was not good,' he said. 'I failed to get up and down six times.' Jose Maria Olazabal and Peter Baker both birdied just one hole, the par five 18th. The Masters champion shot a five over 76, while Baker struggled in with a 78.

BUICK CLASSIC (Westchester, NY): Leading first-round scores (US unless stated): 65 M Reid; 66 B Estes, D Pruitt, S Brodie, S Pate, W Levi; 67 D Frost (SA). 68 E Els (SA), T Kite, P Blackmar, D Tewell, K Gibson, J Haas, J Wilson; 69 R Cochran, N Ozaki (Japan), L Janzen, F Funk, M McCumber, B Ogle (Aus), R Freeman; 70 B Andrade, F Couples, G Day, B Bryant, R Black, B Faxon, N Henke, J Huston, P Jordan, H Irwin; 71 D Love III, H Sutton, J Thorpe, S Ballesteros (Sp), T Watson, M Broooks, B Claar, B Tway, D Barr (Can), D Toms, E Humenik, T Tryba, S Verplank, H Twitty, T Dodds (Nam), T Garner, G Hallberg, B Britton, D Peoples, C Stadler. Selected: 76 J M Olazabal (Sp); 78 P Baker (Eng).