BERMUDA DUNES, Calif. -- Fred Couples, finally able to turn his attention back to golf, has begun his 1998 PGA season with his first victory in almost two years.
Couples, overcoming the pain of an arthritic back and the stress of two recent personal tragedies, beat Bruce Lietzke in a playoff Sunday at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
"This is not the greatest win I have ever had, but it was a great time to win a tournament," Couples said. "Winning again was very important.
"This proved to me that I can still win, and I plan on winning more tournaments. I plan on having a great year."
Even Lietzke, who was trying to repeat his Hope victory of 17 years ago, was happy for Couples despite his own disappointment at blowing a one-shot lead on the final hole of regulation.
"This has to be very, very encouraging for a guy that has not been too happy about a lot of things in the last few months. So you feel very good for Freddie," Lietzke said.
"Obviously it is going to be a very popular victory; popular among the fans and among the players. The Tour needs people like Freddie Couples, so it is encouraging for all of us."
Lietzke added with a wistful smile, "I love to see good people win, so I am kind of happy he won, but I am very disappointed that I lost."
Couples birdied the 18th hole to catch Lietzke in regulation. He birdied it again shortly thereafter to win on the first playoff hole.
The two had finished 90 holes at 28-under par. Lietzke lost his one-shot lead on the final hole of regulation when he left a 15-foot birdie try high of the cup.
Couples, who had hit his second shot onto the green of the par-5, 513-yard 18th, tapped in for a 4.
Andrew Magee, tied with Lietzke for the lead heading into the final round and one shot behind going into the final hole, lipped out a 15-foot birdie try, costing him a spot in the playoff.
Playing No. 18 again, Couples hit his second shot into the gallery behind the green, got a free drop and snuggled a 30-foot chip shot within 3 feet of the cup. Lietzke, facing another critical 15-foot birdie try, once again left his putt on the high side of the hole.
Couples knocked his short putt into the center of the cup to win for the first time since The Players Championship in 1996. The Hope was his 13th career victory.
The win also was just the second since 1995 for the 38-year-old Couples, who has been bothered by his back for the past four years.
He played just 15 events last year, and a tie for fourth at the Mercedes Championships was his best finish. Instead of concentrating on his game, he had turned his attention to his father, who had leukemia, and to his own girlfriend, Thais Bren, who has since recovered from breast cancer. Couples' father, Tom, died last November.
Couples, who had not led the five-day tournament since briefly during the second round, shot a closing 6-under-par 66 as he came from three shots behind Lietzke. Lietzke finished with a 69.
Magee, who led two days and was tied with Lietzke at the top after four rounds, closed with a 70, by two strokes his highest score of the five days.
David Duval, with a 68, and Steve Jones, with a 69, finished tied for fourth at 25-under.
Mark O'Meara, who made an early run with five birdies on the front nine on Sunday before taking a double-bogey on No. 12, finished tied with 1997 PGA rookie of the year Stewart Cink at 24-under. Both shot 69.
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