Am Fam - Couples walking up fairway

Fred Couples acknowledges the crowd as he walks up the 18th fairway en route to clinching victory at the American Family Insurance Championship.

The defending champion is usually the first name to go up on the marquee at most golf tournaments and there is still a chance Fred Couples will return to University Ridge GC in June for the third annual American Family Insurance Championship.

But news of the first player commitments for the 2018 PGA Tour Champions event revealed Tuesday what Couples’ schedule over the last four months had already suggested. His ailing back might make his participation a game-day decision.

“Fred has expressed a desire to defend his title,” Am Fam Championship tournament director Nate Pokrass wrote in a text message. “But his playing schedule is dictated by his health. We anticipate knowing his status much closer to the tournament.”

Luckily for Pokrass, the Am Fam Championship is much healthier than Couples is.

The first four names added to what, come June 15, will be a 78-golfer field weren’t too shabby. Besides tournament host Steve Stricker and fellow Madison golfer Jerry Kelly, David Toms and Joe Durant — Nos. 3 and 4 on the Charles Schwab Cup money list behind Stricker and Kelly — will also tee it up June 22 through 24.

Stricker has won twice in three starts this season. Durant and Kelly have each won once -- Kelly at the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai  while Durant held off Stricker down the stretch to win the Chubb Classic in Florida.

And, to round out a solid day on the player commitment front, Bernhard Langer -- the most dominant performer on the senior circuit over the last six years -- is also coming back to University Ridge. He missed last year’s event after tying for 13th in 2016.

“Steve, Jerry and Joe are off to an impressive start on the PGA Tour Champions this year,” Pokrass said in a news release. “We look forward to welcoming David Toms for the first time. And Bernhard Langer’s record speak for itself.”

Couples, unfortunately, has a medical record that lately, at least, has quieted one of golf’s most engaging stars in 2018. And it doesn’t make him a shoe-in to play

After shooting 66-71-66 to finish tied for sixth behind Kelly in Hawaii, Couples went 12 weeks without competing until last week’s Masters Tournament, where — at age 58 — he shot 72-74 and made the cut for the 30th time in 33 starts. He skipped his title defense at the Chubb Classic in February and then committed to two PGA Tour Champions events (the Toshiba Classic and the Rapiscan Systems Classic) in the weeks leading up to Augusta National only to withdraw and then spent most of his time after rounds getting treatment on his back, declining most interviews.

“I’m not at 100 percent,” Couples told Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard at the start of the week. “I tried to hit a couple harder than I should have, and that didn’t feel good. I’m driving it pretty well. It’s my first week back in eight weeks, so I’m going to play.”

Last year, Couples had five top-five finishes in his first six starts on the PGA Tour Champions before the end of April in addition to tying for 18th at The Masters. But he played just one more event before coming to University Ridge for the first time and shooting 67-68-66 and winning by two shots over Scott Verplank at 15-under 201.

These days, that’s the kind of switch Couples can flip. And that’s he deserves — and will get — all the time he wants to determine if his back can handle a title defense.

We are supportive of his  plans and proud to have him as our 2017 champion,” Pokrass wrote in his text. “That being said, we are pleased with how our field is coming together with many of the top players competing in June.”

Rob started covering the Wisconsin golf scene in 1987 at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison & has been the only reporter covering all levels of state golf. He joined Killarney Golf Media in Sept. 2015 & helped launch Wisconsin.Golf in Jan. 2016.