Couples relishing Royal Birkdale defence

Fred Couples ranks his victory in last year’s Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex at Turberry as one of the highlights of his career, and the American is now targeting a successful defence of his title next week at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, where he came so close to winning a Claret Jug.

The 53 year old finished tied third in The 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, three shots behind champion Ian Baker Finch and one adrift of runner-up Mike Harwood after a magnificent final round of 64.

That remains his joint best finish in The Open Championship, along with St Andrews in 2005, and is one of nine top ten finishes he recorded in golf’s oldest competition without managing to capture a Claret Jug.

It therefore proved to be a moment to savour for Couples when he triumphed on his debut in The Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex 12 months ago, sinking a 25ft birdie putt on the last hole at Turnberry following an absorbing final round battle with 2010 champion Bernhard Langer.

The former World Number One now heads to Royal Birkdale, from July 25-28, to defend his title at a venue where he feels he has some unfinished business.

“I came close to winning The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991 when Ian Baker Finch won, and I really like the course,” he said. “It was one where I played the par fives very well all week. I remember it being a very good test and very challenging.

“I know Mike Harwood played well that Open, but Ian made so many putts on the Sunday. I got off to a great start to put myself right up there and kept on going, but it seemed like Ian birdied every other hole. The course was pretty dry and played pretty short. I loved Birkdale because for me it was an advantage if I could drive between those bunkers and get it down there. It feels like a long time ago now. It was a chance for me to win The Open, but Ian played great to shoot 66.”

Couples has been in superb form on the US Champions Tour so far this season, finishing in the top five in five out of eight events and also tying for 13th place in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National, scene of his greatest triumph in 1992.

He went into last week’s US Senior Open, where he finished tied 14th, off the back of three straight runner up finishes, and this week, courtesy of his victory in The Senior Open, he returns to compete in The Open Championship for the first time in seven years.

“I’m going to go to Muirfield and try to relax a bit and be ready to play well the week before defending,” he said. “Playing at Muirfield will be an unbelievable experience too. It’s great to have the chance to play in one more Open, then I will head on down to Birkdale, and hopefully it will help me. Hopefully I won’t be too tired.

“For a while I thought about maybe not playing Muirfield, because Birkdale is so important to me. But then towards the end I thought that would be the dumbest thing ever, not to play one of the top courses in the world.

“If I can play well at Muirfield I think I can do well at Birkdale, but it has been a while since I’ve played The Open. You can’t just show up there and play, so I’m going to try to do my best.

“Then Birkdale is going to be a great place for The Senior Open, and I’m sure it will be a special occasion. Everyone is coming over for it. We have some great champions playing on the Senior Tour and Champions Tour and some great events. This (The Senior Open) is the number one for me. The US Senior Open is great, and being from Seattle the Champions Tour event we play there is special, but The Senior Open is the one for me.”

Couples demonstrated the esteem in which he holds his Senior Open victory by placing his trophy alongside his Green Jacket at the heart of his display when inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier this year.

“It was an awesome week last year,” he said. “It was my first Senior Open and I was very excited to play Turnberry.

“One of the great things about The Senior Open is the great courses that we play and Birkdale is another unbelievable course. For someone like me, who has always loved The Open Championship, when you turn 50, The Senior Open becomes a sweet event to play and to actually win it capped off a great week for me.

“I tried many different ways to win The Open, but couldn’t quite do it, so to win a Senior Open was special.”

Golf fans hoping to see Couples defend his title and many more of the game’s all-time greats, including Mark O’Meara and Tom Watson, who won The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1998 and 1983 respectively, and debutant Colin Montgomerie can reserve their place at The Senior Open Championship Presented by Rolex, from July 25-28.

Season tickets can now be purchased for just £80 while one day tickets cost £30. Practice day tickets are also available at £15. Under16s are admitted for free when accompanied by an adult and parking is also free.

Tickets can be bought online via www.senioropengolf.com or by calling +44 (0)800 0232557, with details of hospitality packages also available.

Royal Birkdale, which last hosted The Open Championship in 2008 when Padraig Harrington claimed his second consecutive Claret Jug, will become the 11th different course to host The Senior Open Championship. It will be only the second venue in the north west of England to host the Championship, following Royal Lytham & St Annes (1991-1994).