Crowd favourite Couples to keep Tiger company on return to fray

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The Independent Online

On Monday, Tiger Woods will play his first round in front of paying fans in almost five months and will do so in the company of perhaps the most popular golfer in America. If any member of the gallery is intent on heckling the disgraced world No 1 then they will have to ensure Fred Couples is not in their line of fire.

The 1992 Masters champion let on here at the Houston Open yesterday that he has already fixed up to accompany Woods in his reintroduction to professional golf. "Yeah, I am playing with him on Monday, but I'm not sure yet whether it will be before his press conference [scheduled for 2pm local time] or afterwards," said Couples. "I always play a practice round with him at Augusta, so it's not a surprise. I have probably played six to eight times with him there over the last 10 years."

Far from being there as simply a supportive ally, Couples revealed his intentions are selfish. The 51-year-old has won three times in a row on the Champions Tour and is fancied for a strong Augusta showing. "Tiger's the best player in the world and he's won the thing a bunch of time," he said. "He knows how to play the golf course and even at my age, I can still learn some of the nuances about Augusta. And that's why I am playing with him. I'm a friend of his – I'm not his counsellor."

Tickets for the practice days are swapping hands on the black market for approximately £300, but are available. At least one former mistress of Woods has claimed she will be in the crowd in search of an apology (and, just maybe, a little more publicity) and it may prove that the practice days are more uncomfortable for the protagonist than the tournament itself, which is traditionally only attended by "patrons".

After spending two days at Augusta last week, Woods has been there again this week and many on the range here believe he has been doing the bulk of his preparations before the fans turn up. But this revelation by Couples indicates Woods is prepared to face the galleries. "I might even play with him more than once," said Couples.

Indeed, Couples seems a good bet to be paired with Woods for the first two rounds. The draw will be released on Tuesday, although it is understood Woods will tee it up at around 2pm on Thursday. This will at least allow television to show the majority of his long-awaited first round.