Take away the grey hair, 30 years and current form and there are a lot of similarities between Fred Couples and Rory McIlroy.

Gifted with obscene amounts of natural talent and possessed of swings of sheer beauty, the golfing gods have seen fit to remind them that they are mere mortals by tormenting them with back problems and less than reliable putting skills.

Twelve months ago, few would have predicted that it would be “Boom Boom” Freddie and not Rory the baby boomer who would be heading to Augusta National looking like a title contender.

While McIlroy’s last three events have seen him follow a second round loss in the WGC-Accenture World Match Play with a tie for 40th in the Honda Classic and the share of 65th in the WGC-CA Championship at Doral two weeks ago, Couples has been in a state of grace on the Champions Tour.

Second in his first outing on the over 50s circuit, he has won his last three events on the spin and is 76-under par for the 12 tournament rounds he has played so far this year, averaging 65.33 per round. 

As a graduate of the University of Houston and a winner of the Shell Houston Open in 2003, Couples tees it up amongst the young guns at Redstone Golf Club today as one of the players to watch.

In fact, the 1992 Masters champion is likely to be close to the centre of attention for the next week following his announcement yesterday that he will play a practice round with his beleaguered friend Tiger Woods at the Masters next Monday.

Speculating that they might not get to play until after Woods’ eagerly awaited two o’clock media conference, Couples said: “I’ve played with him six or eight times the last 10 years in a practice round there, so it’s not like I’m trying to get around him.

“He’s the best player in the world, he’s won it a bunch of times, he knows how to play the course, and even at my age I still learn some of the nuances about Augusta, and that’s why I’m playing with him.”

No-one would be surprised to see Couples challenge for a second green jacket next week, not even the player himself. But Couples believes that Woods will be ready to go when he tees it up for the first time in five months following a series of image-shattering revelations of extra-marital affairs.

“We all know he made a mistake and we’ll see how he overcomes it. I’m a friend of his, not his counsellor but I know at Augusta he’ll be ready to go,” Couples said.

Couples led the US to Presidents Cup victory over an International side captained by Greg Norman last year and the PGA Tour confirmed yesterday that both men will return as captains next year, when the matches will be played at Royal Melbourne from November 14-20.

Couples is confident that Woods will again backbone his Presidents Cup side and tentatively suggested that the world number one would play for Corey Pavin in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October.

“I’m sure he will be going to Wales,” Couples said. “I believe he is ready to start playing and I am sure all his other Ryder Cup team mates will be wanting him on the side.”

While he’s missed the cut for the past two years, Couples is also confident that he can continue his long love affair with Augusta National, where he won the title in 1992.

“Playing on the Champions Tour has helped in that but personally, I always go into Augusta with a mind thought that I am going to do well,” he said. “This year by winning three times I feel as though it has helped me in making a crucial putt here or there. So when you get to Augusta you are going to have those on the very first hole and I have been doing very well with my putting this year and that’s a big bonus.

“But then the courses on the Champions Tour seem easy to my now because I am driving the ball very well but once I start spraying it, they won’t seem that easy.

“So that’s going to be the key for me because if I drive it well and putt well I am going to shoot good scores whether I am at the Houston Open, Augusta or a Champions Tour event.”

McIlroy could do with a dollop of Couples’ confidence but both the player and his coach, Michael Bannon, believes he is just a couple of good rounds away from regaining his best form.

“It would be nice to shoot a couple of good scores with next week in mind,” McIlroy said before yesterday’s pro-am, where he was watched by Bannon.

Pointing to Ernie Els’ recent upturn in form as a perfect example of the vagaries of the game, Bangor professional Bannon believes that some hard work on fundamentals and McIlroy’s desire to play well again will see his star pupil turn things around quickly.

“Like any player, Rory has highs and lows.  He had bit of a low there just recently and hopefully we are going to come out of it,” Bannon said. “He’s a natural golfer so it will come back.  He’s just going through a little phase where he has had a couple of bad tournaments.

“The (recent back) injury made him compensate with his swing so we are getting back to basics and making the moves properly again …. hopefully he will respond and shoot a couple of good rounds. 

“His mental strength is number one. He has a good swing and he’s a natural golfer. He has so many good things going for him. He wouldn’t be number two in Europe if he wasn’t.”