Couch claims Zurich title by one stroke

Updated: April 30, 2006, 9:26 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- On the verge of a collapse, Chris Couch tried to stay positive as he stood over a 55-foot chip for par on the 18th hole that he had to get up-and-down simply to get into a playoff at the Zurich Classic.

"I was thinking this would be a great way to win a tournament," he said. "It would be something I'd remember always."

Using a rare, cross-handed grip for chipping, Couch watched his lofted pitch land in the right spot and track toward the hole until it disappeared into the cup, a victory so stunning that he thrust his arms in the air and slammed his pitching wedge into the ground in relief.

No way will he ever forget this week in the Big Easy.

It started a week ago Sunday on Bourbon Street when he got lost in the wrong part of town, climbed into a car with the wrong kind of people and wound up running down the streets of New Orleans until he could call police and get safely back to his car.

His heart was pumping just as fast over the final two holes, when he twice nearly threw away his first PGA Tour victory.

After sending his shot from a mud-caked bunker over the green on the par-3 17th, Couch had to make a 12-foot putt to save bogey. Then came the final act, another bunker shot that didn't reach the green, and a chip-in for par that gave him a 7-under 65 and a one-shot victory over Charles Howell III and Fred Funk.

Has any winner of this event ever had a week like Couch?

"I doubt it," he said, Mardi Gras beads draped around his neck. "It's been an adventure. But it couldn't have worked out any better."

Couch finished at 19-under 269 and earned $1.08 million in the first nationally televised sporting event in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

Howell, winless since his only PGA Tour victory four years ago, also thought fate was on his side, but he saw the definition of destiny over the final two holes as Couch twice came through with an incredible escape.

"The finish was unbelievable," Howell said after a 65. "Moreso than him holing for par on the last was the bogey made on 17 from the skulled bunker shot. But it's those things that it takes to win. Chris played great. I hope those two holes there don't take away from how well he played."

Funk, the 49-year-old who is two months away from his Champions Tour debut, finished with a 30-foot birdie putt for a 62. He was on the practice range getting ready for a playoff when he heard the roar, but only later did he learn how it ended.

Stuart Appleby, coming off a victory last week in the Houston Open, shot 64 and tied for fourth with Joe Durant (68) and Brett Wetterich (66).

In his first tournament since winning the Masters, Phil Mickelson closed with a 69 and tied for 15th.

Couch became the fourth player to make the cut on the number and win on the PGA Tour. He went from worst-to-first in the third round, playing early and avoiding 30 mph gusts in the afternoon.

He had no such help Sunday, and his golf was superb.

The only other time Couch had a lead on the PGA Tour was after 36 holes last year in the Western Open, and he tied for 13th. But for the first 16 holes, he sure didn't look anything like a guy playing in the final group for the first time.

Couch played quickly as he belted his drives down the fairway and swept in birdie putts with his long putter. He was incredibly relaxed, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, chewing away on a big plug of tobacco, dribbling some juice on his royal blue shirt and laughing about it. His calm belied the flurry of low scores around him.

With overnight rain, players teed off on both sides starting just before lunch, and the course was soft and vulnerable. Birdies were dropping everywhere, but no one could take the lead away from Couch.

He had four birdies through five holes, and missed a 4-foot birdie on the par-5 sixth. Howell did his best to stay with him with four birdies through six holes, but he fell three shots behind when Couch went out in 30.

Lucas Glover started on the back nine and was 9 under through 13 holes when he started steering his shots.

"I made the putt on No. 4, the cameras showed up and I locked up a little bit," Glover said. "Hopefully, I can have that chance again and I'll act differently."

Glover closed with five straight pars for a 63 and wound up in a tie for sixth, at least earning Ryder Cup points.

Couch cooled slightly on the back, enough to give Howell hope and Funk and unlikely chance. Both got within one shot of the lead. Funk made three straight birdies, but his run ended when he hooked his approach over the 16th green into a bad lie and wound up with a bogey, although he finished with a 30-foot birdie for his 62 and eventually headed to the range.

Howell made three straight birdies inside 10 feet to reach 18 under, and he had an 8-foot birdie to tie for the lead on the 14th that he pulled badly to the left. And when Couch knocked down a wedge to 3 feet for birdie on the 16th, he restored his lead to two shots and seemed headed to an easy victory.

Even in this town, he had to work harder than he imagined.

"I would like to make it easier next time," Couch said. "My heart can't take much more of this."

Divots
Mickelson said he would donate his entire check from the Zurich Classic to Hurricane Katrina relief. When he tied for 15th and earned $81,720, Mickelson said he would bump the donation to $250,000. ... The PGA Tour rules officials decided Saturday night to go to threesomes both sides between 10 a.m. and noon because of rain in the forecast. There was a one-hour delay Sunday morning to get the course ready, but the decision paid off.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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