Last Thursday at 8:36 a.m., when 16-year-old Chris Couch would normally have been sitting in English III at Coconut Creek (Fla.) High School, he was teeing it up in the $1 million Honda Classic in Coral Springs. With him was his caddie-father, Chip, and a small but enthusiastic claque of friends and relatives. "Dare we call them Couch Potatoes?" said one reporter to another.
The PGA Tour doesn't keep official records of such things, so no one was able to say with certainty that Chris was the youngest golfer ever to play in a Tour event, but it made such a good story that most people at the Tournament Players Club at Eagle Trace were saying it anyway. He was definitely the youngest anyone could remember.
Chris won his spot in the 144-man field by shooting a six-under-par 65 on the Carolina Country Club course near his home. Among the 205 players competing for four openings, Chris had the second lowest score. It probably helped some that Carolina is where his high school team plays its home matches, but the matches are only nine holes. His best score there for nine is 32.
"Next on the tee from North Lauderdale," said the starter at the Honda Classic." ...playing for Coconut Creek High School...Chris Couch."
Chris's first hole at Eagle Trace was, in fact, the 10th, a 526-yard par 5. He took a few practice swings, stepped into position, waggled the club, waggled his 6'2½", 150-pound body, steadied himself—and inadvertently knocked the ball off the tee. Embarrassing. A few spectators giggled. Chris teed the ball again. Steadied himself again. And hit his drive 260 yards down the middle of the fairway. The Potatoes went crazy.
"I was nervous, real nervous," he said later. "You always want to hit that first shot good and get a good start. I hit a good one down there and it relieved all the pressure for me." It didn't, however, keep brutal reality from setting in on the next three holes—bogey, double bogey, bogey. "Last night I was thinking I'd shoot a round of even par," Chris said. "But when I got here in the morning, it was so windy I was thinking, Shoot, 74 or 75 would be a great round today."
Undone by the wind, Chris finished with an 82, but he was not alone. Twenty-five pros shot 80 or more that day. The high point of Chris's round was a birdie at the 376-yard 14th where he sank a 20-foot putt from off the green.
Chip and Mardi Couch have four boys and one girl. Chip, who has a roofing business, is a 16-handicapper who once pitched in the Double A Carolina League. He would have been happy if one of his boys had played major league ball. Chris, according to Chip, might have been a pretty fair pitcher, but once he found golf at seven, no other game had a chance. By 10, he had broken par for the first time, shooting a two-under 70 on a Miami course, and by 13 he was beating his father regularly. "We're your typical five-children family, with a $72,000 home, that makes the mortgage payment on time every month," Chip said.
Chad, 15, the youngest Couch, is a freshman who plays No. 2 behind Chris on the Coconut Creek team. According to their father, Chad probably has the greater talent, but Chris has the temperament. "Chad and the others in the family lose their tempers when they hit bad shots," Chip says. "But not Chris. He's special. He already knows the game is not meant to be fair."
After shooting 77 on Friday, Chris missed the cut by eight strokes, but he felt better. He took a double bogey on the second hole and a triple bogey on the 12th, but he was even par for the other 16. And he also got to see some of his heroes at close range. "I ran into Tom Watson, and that was something else." he said. "I was in shock. I always thought he was a little taller. He was real short. I was like, 'How did this guy win so many tournaments?' "
After Friday's round, as Chris signed autographs, a man kept yelling, "Here's the next Jack Nicklaus! The next Jack Nicklaus, right here!" Pro Jeff Hart, who played both rounds with Chris, pointed to a clear difference between Couch and Nicklaus at the same age. "For as tall as he is, he doesn't hit the ball as far as he could," said Hart. "But as soon as he fills out, he will."
In ways that count more in the long run, Chris filled out a lot in two days. "I used to wonder why guys who shot 64 and 65 to qualify didn't go out and do it again in the tournament," he said. "Now I know. It's a lot harder. I realize I've still got an awful lot of hard work ahead."