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Chris Couch looked slightly dazed as he marched behind the Joe Simon jazz band onto the 18th green at English Turn Golf & Country Club. With purple, gold and green Mardi Gras beads raining down from the grandstands, Couch was probably still in shock over the miracle 54-yard pitch he had holed on that spot minutes earlier to win the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. He was also no doubt well aware that he was the unlikeliest of winners, a 33-year-old underachiever who, before Sunday, had earned a mere $340,979 in 66 starts on the PGA Tour. � After accepting a check for $1.08 million, Couch gathered himself, delivered all the necessary thank-yous, paused and added, "I have one more thing to say." Then he leaned back and let loose a five-second "Whoooooo!" that almost blew out the P.A. system, before screaming, "Let's party!"
On the one hand, revealing your inner Bourbon Street child seemed wildly inappropriate. New Orleans, after all, is recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. On the other hand, Crouch's sentiments were perfect. Regardless of how one viewed the Tour's attempt to aid New Orleans, the tournament did provide the ravaged city with an excuse to look away from its problems, and Couch's determination to have a good time may have been just what Dr. John ordered.
This Zurich Classic was a chance for the Tour to do more than pat itself on the back for raising money for charity. Yet only four of the world's top-ranked players entered. David Toms, a Louisiana native and, along with New Orleanian Kelly Gibson, the unofficial tournament host, tried to be diplomatic, but Toms's disappointment was hard to miss. "It all goes back to scheduling, I guess," he said. "A lot of those guys are world players, and it's a long way to travel." True, but Retief Goosen of South Africa provided a counterpoint by refusing to be thanked for showing up. "[Playing] is not that big a deal," he said. "I went to the airport, got on a plane and came over. I've been doing it for years."
The lack of star power made No. 2-- ranked Phil Mickelson, making his first start since winning the Masters, the undisputed headliner. Mickelson, who had previously made a $250,000 contribution to the relief effort, pledged his winnings for the week. That put the onus on the other players, which was probably the point and not universally appreciated. Said Stuart Appleby, "I don't tell people what I'm doing one way or the other." Player services chairperson Anne Barnes said she received only "20 or 30" completed copies of the winnings-donation forms that the players are given at every Tour stop. Asked if other players had followed Mickelson's lead, Fore! Kids Foundation chairman Mike Rodrigue said, "Somewhat," but added that organizers had received checks from pros who didn't enter.
If the tournament's role was to provide entertainment, it succeeded on every level. There was a boffo finish and a winner who, although largely unknown, has a backstory as quirky and intriguing as the city's. Couch was a golfing prodigy while growing up near Fort Lauderdale; he Monday-qualified for the 1990 Honda Classic at age 16. At Florida he showed enough promise that during a college tournament in Augusta, a skinny local kid named Charles Howell chose to caddie for him rather than for Texas's Justin Leonard.
PGA Tour success, though, has been elusive. Couch won five times on the Nationwide tour, but in a two full seasons in the bigs he never placed higher than 181st on the money list. In early 2003 he ran out of funds, and only a $3,000 loan from fellow pro Brenden Pappas kept him from quitting. Couch's financial situation wasn't much better heading into the Zurich. Recently divorced, he has been living in an RV. "I don't have a home address," he says. "People send [mail] through the Tour."
Couch's New Orleans sojourn began with an evening that was bizarre even by Big Easy standards. On the Sunday before the tournament he went barhopping in the French Quarter but got lost trying to find his courtesy car. He accepted a ride from a carful of women who "looked normal," he says, but he soon became uneasy when they drove him into an unwelcoming part of town. Panicked, he bolted from the car only to discover that he had lost, or been relieved of, his cellphone. Soon another car pulled up, and its driver asked, "What are you doing in this neighborhood?" Couch took off his shoes, presumably flip-flops, and ran barefoot for 20 minutes before seeking refuge in a tattoo parlor and calling the police. This was probably not what the TV folks had in mind when they said during the telecast that New Orleans was back to her old self.
Between the ropes Couch started unspectacularly, making the cut on the number. Then, benefiting from relatively calm early conditions on an otherwise brutal Saturday, when winds gusted up to 30 miles an hour, he vaulted into the lead with an eight-under 64.
For most of Sunday he played superb golf--he was eight under through his first 16 holes and 20 under for the tournament, two ahead of his nearest pursuer, his onetime caddie, Howell. But on 17 Couch started to unravel. After a poor bunker shot and an equally bad chip on the 203-yard par-3, he had to jar a 12-footer for bogey to remain in the lead. On the par-4 18th he drove into the left rough and then caught a flier, hitting a pitching wedge 153 yards and over the green, his ball stopping within inches of the back lip of a bunker.
No one was surprised when Couch couldn't coax his ball onto the green from the sand, but he stunned the crowd, and probably himself, when he knocked in his next shot from off the side of the green (Big Play, page G30). The shot was reminiscent of Craig Perks's walk-off chip-in at the 2002 Players Championship, not only because the shot ended the tournament but also because Perks was the last guy you would've expected to pull it off. Going into the Zurich, Couch ranked No. 184 in the Tour's scrambling stat and would have ranked dead last had it not been for No. 185: Craig Perks.