After crazy week, Couch owns one-shot Zurich lead

Updated: April 29, 2006, 9:07 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Couch is on some kind of wild ride in the Big Easy.

When he arrived Sunday night, he got lost walking to his car in downtown New Orleans and asked a group of women for a ride. That turned into a "weird" situation, and they let him out in a seedy section of a town that made him so scared Couch ran barefoot for 20 minutes before ducking into a tattoo parlor to call the police.

Stranger still was the spot he was in Saturday.

One day after closing with two tough pars to make the cut on the number, Couch took on gusty conditions for an 8-under 64, which left him atop the leaderboard after a wacky, wind-swept day at the Zurich Classic.

The PGA Tour did not have records of anyone going from worst-to-first in the third round.

"I'm not sure I would have believed it," Couch said.

He finished at 12-under 204 and had a one-shot lead over Charles Howell III (66) and Joe Durant, the 36-hole leader was still warming up when Couch signed for his card.

Durant and the late starters got the brunt of gusts up to 30 mph and they paid for it. None of the final 16 players who teed off broke par, and Durant was happy to sneak in with a 73, a round that featured only five pars and a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

"It was very difficult from the very first shot," he said.

Durant had 115 yards to the first green and decided to hit a knockdown 7-iron. It never had a chance of reaching, and that's about the time Durant knew he was in for a long day. Three straight bogeys were followed by three straight birdies. A gust knocked his wedge down and into the water. Then came the birdie on the last hole, to get into the final group.

"I was trying to hold on more than anything," Durant said.

Dean Wilson (66) and Cameron Beckman (67), both early starters, were at 10-under 206.

Masters champion Phil Mickelson figured he would need a 64 to get into the mix, and all it took was a 68 marred only by a bogey from the bunker on the 17th. He was only three shots behind, along with six others.

"I thought anything under par would be a good round," said Mickelson, who teed off in the morning. "When I saw guys making birdies, I knew I had to make them, as well."

Couch, who turns 33 on Monday, has only led one other time on the PGA Tour, last year at the Western Open when he tied for 13th. He never imagined he would have such a good chance to capture his first victory the way his week started -- on and off the course.

Couch said he was drinking downtown when he got lost walking six blocks to his car. He saw some women who "looked normal," asked them for a ride and soon felt uncomfortable with where they were taking him. When he asked to be let out, he said another car pulled up, a man jumped out of the car and yelled, "What are you doing in this neighborhood?"

"I was scared in the part of town I was in," Couch said.

Couch lost his cell phone during the ordeal, unsure if he left it in the car or it was taken from him. Contrary to rumors that were swirling around English Turn, he said he was not robbed of any money. But he declined to say what was weird about being in the car.

"I was just uncomfortable -- that's as plain as I can tell you," Couch said. "I didn't like the situation, and I didn't like where we were going."

Even more bothersome were the stories he heard during the week -- that he was held up in front of an ATM machine, that he was robbed leaving a casino and one tale that he had been kidnapped and taken to Mississippi.

"I've been kidnapped every night and I'm playing pretty well," Couch said, laughing.

It was a scary situation, although Couch said he tried to forget about it once the tournament got under way, and "I was more upset about the bogey on 18 than anything that happened Sunday."

The rest of his round was superb. He holed two long birdie putts on the front nine and attacked other flags with wedges, and he reached the island green in two on the par-5 15th. The only blemish was hitting into the bunker on 18th for his lone bogey.

"I had no expectations going out there," Couch said. "I knew it was going to play tough. I never thought about how many under [par] I was. I just wanted to get as many under as I could to give myself a chance for tomorrow."

The early starters were done when gusts up to 30 mph turned English Turn tough. The wind blew Michael Allen's ball as he addressed a putt on the 15th, turning par into bogey. David Toms, the local star because of the money he raised for Hurricane Katrina victims, was one shot out of the lead until struggling in the wind and dropping three shots for a 72.

Still, he was among 19 players within four shots of the lead.

Divots
Mickelson went with only one driver Saturday, although he trouble making up his mind. First, he told caddie Jim Mackay that with the wind, he probably wouldn't need the fade driver. Mackay put that driver in the car, and brought back a wedge for the 14th club in the bag. Mickelson kept hooking his draw driver, then called over Mackay and told him to bring back the fade driver. He hit a few drives, then headed to the first tee. "Just my normal driver," Mickelson said later. "I took out my Augusta special." ... Carlos Franco made one of the better pars on No. 18. He sliced his tee shot so far to the right that he wound up in a bunker along the 16th fairway, with sky boxes in his way. Any relief meant he would have to drop in the bunker, which could have given him a plugged lie. So the two-time winner in New Orleans took it over the sky boxes just short of the green, and got up-and-down to finish off his 68.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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