By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Rusty though he was after playing very little golf for five months, Fred Couples once again found form at his beloved Riviera Country Club in the Northern Trust Open on Thursday.
The former world number one, who is competing in the PGA Tour event for a record 31st time, opened with a three-under-par 68 at a venue he ranks as one of his all-time top three on the circuit.
Not only did Couples finish just four strokes off the early lead set by fellow American Matt Kuchar but he outscored one of his two playing partners, Masters champion Bubba Watson, by a staggering nine shots.
"Obviously Bubba didn't play well today," the 53-year-old Couples, who has limited his playing schedule in recent seasons due to lingering back injuries, told reporters after mixing five birdies with two bogeys in dazzling sunshine at Riviera.
"I had a great pairing. Lee (Westwood) is phenomenal, a great player and hits the ball awfully clean and sharp."
British world number eight Westwood, the other member of the high-profile trio, also carded a 68.
"For me, I actually played very, very well," said Couples, who was champion here in 1990 and 1992. "It's always fun playing here.
"Last year I opened up with a 69 and this year with a 68, so I hope to come out and play well tomorrow, hit the ball solid and have another good round."
Couples, who has recorded 14 top-10 finishes in his 30 previous starts at Riviera, was surprised how well he fared on Thursday after barely competing since he pulled out of the Champions Tour's Boeing Classic in August due to back problems.
"Yeah I am (surprised), because I didn't play very well (in practice) yesterday or Tuesday, and I have not been playing really since August when I hurt myself," said the laidback American with the ultra-smooth swing.
"I have not really practiced much ... I just don't feel like I'm quite ready to bang balls at a pace. So it's surprising but again I can figure my way out around this course."
Couples, who finished fourth in the Champions Tour's Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai last month in his first tournament of the year, was delighted to rebound from a par, bogey start on Thursday.
"From then on I played very, very well," said the 1992 Masters champion who for a few years lived just a mile from Riviera. "You've got to go out and play well here.
"I know there's going to be some good scores. It's irrelevant what everyone else is shooting, but I just want to play well and keep staying under par."
Couples, who is known for his languid swing and his prodigious length off the tee which earned him the nickname 'Boom Boom', has always relished the challenge of the small greens and shrewd bunkering on Riviera's par-71 layout
"I love the course," he said. "I feel like I'm a very good iron player and it's a good second shot course.
"I'm going to drive it in the rough but if you're in the fairways here with seven-, eight-, six-irons, you have to figure out how to far to hit it.
"The greens are teeny and I just like that. I grew up on that and always played well here," added Couples, a 15-times winner on the PGA Tour.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)