Originally created 05/01/06

Couch chips in on final hole to win New Orleans



NEW ORLEANS - This Sunday in New Orleans sure ended a lot better for Chris Couch than the last one.

Twice on the verge of a collapse, Couch recovered by chipping in from 55 feet for par on the 18th hole at English Turn to close with a 7-under 65 and win the Zurich Classic by one shot over Charles Howell III and Fred Funk.

Couch, who turns 33 on Monday, won for the first time on the PGA Tour and capped off a week in the Big Easy he won't soon forget.

A week ago, he was in downtown having some drinks when he got lost going to his car, took a ride from strangers that made him uncomfortable, and wound up running 20 minutes through a seedy part of town until he called police for help from a tattoo parlor.

That memory was long gone when he got to the 18th hole, doing everything he could do lose the tournament.

From the left rough, his pitching wedge sailed over the green and against the back slope of a bunker still muddy from overnight rain. The best he could do was squirt that out to the collar of rough, and he had to get up-and-down just to get into a playoff.

Instead, he lofted a chip that rolled true toward the hole and disappeared for an unlikely par.

Couch finished at 19-under 269 and earned $1.08 million.

Howell, whose only victory came at the Michelob Championship four years ago, must be wondering what he has to do to win. He played in the final group, shot 65 and still had to settle for second place.

Howell had a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th and a 45-putt birdie putt from the fringe on No. 18, leaving both short.

Funk, the 49-year-old who is two months away from his Champions Tour debut, closed with a 62 and was on the practice range getting ready for the playoff when he heard a roar, not knowing what preceded it.

Couch made an amazing escape on the final two holes.

After a birdie on the 16th gave him a two-shot lead, he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 17th into the side of a bunker, then caught his second shot so clean that it sailed over the green into the rough. He hit that pitch too strong, 12 feet by the cup, but made the bogey putt to stay in the lead. That left him only a little room for error on the 18th, and he used all of it.

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).

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 missed the par-3 third green to the right near a sprinkler head, took relief by dropping into thick rough, then stepped up and chipped it in.

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.