Chris Couch lookedslightly dazed as he marched behind the Joe Simon jazz band onto the 18th greenat English Turn Golf & Country Club. With purple, gold and green Mardi Grasbeads raining down from the grandstands, Couch was probably still in shock overthe miracle 54-yard pitch he had holed on that spot minutes earlier to win theZurich Classic in New Orleans. He was also no doubt well aware that he was theunlikeliest of winners, a 33-year-old underachiever who, before Sunday, hadearned a mere $340,979 in 66 starts on the PGA Tour. ¬∂ After accepting a checkfor $1.08 million, Couch gathered himself, delivered all the necessarythank-yous, paused and added, "I have one more thing to say." Then heleaned back and let loose a five-second "Whoooooo!" that almost blewout the P.A. system, before screaming, "Let's party!"
On the one hand,revealing your inner Bourbon Street child seemed wildly inappropriate. NewOrleans, after all, is recovering from one of the worst natural disasters inU.S. history. On the other hand, Crouch's sentiments were perfect. Regardlessof how one viewed the Tour's attempt to aid New Orleans, the tournament didprovide the ravaged city with an excuse to look away from its problems, andCouch's determination to have a good time may have been just what Dr. Johnordered.
This ZurichClassic was a chance for the Tour to do more than pat itself on the back forraising money for charity. Yet only four of the world's top-ranked playersentered. David Toms, a Louisiana native and, along with New Orleanian KellyGibson, the unofficial tournament host, tried to be diplomatic, but Toms'sdisappointment was hard to miss. "It all goes back to scheduling, Iguess," he said. "A lot of those guys are world players, and it's along way to travel." True, but Retief Goosen of South Africa provided acounterpoint by refusing to be thanked for showing up. "[Playing] is notthat big a deal," he said. "I went to the airport, got on a plane andcame over. I've been doing it for years."
The lack of starpower made No. 2-- ranked Phil Mickelson, making his first start since winningthe 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 notuniversally appreciated. Said Stuart Appleby, "I don't tell people what I'mdoing one way or the other." Player services chairperson Anne Barnes saidshe received only "20 or 30" completed copies of the winnings-donationforms that the players are given at every Tour stop. Asked if other players hadfollowed Mickelson's lead, Fore! Kids Foundation chairman Mike Rodrigue said,"Somewhat," but added that organizers had received checks from pros whodidn't enter.
If thetournament's role was to provide entertainment, it succeeded on every level.There was a boffo finish and a winner who, although largely unknown, has abackstory as quirky and intriguing as the city's. Couch was a golfing prodigywhile growing up near Fort Lauderdale; he Monday-qualified for the 1990 HondaClassic at age 16. At Florida he showed enough promise that during a collegetournament in Augusta, a skinny local kid named Charles Howell chose to caddiefor 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 atwo full seasons in the bigs he never placed higher than 181st on the moneylist. In early 2003 he ran out of funds, and only a $3,000 loan from fellow proBrenden Pappas kept him from quitting. Couch's financial situation wasn't muchbetter 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] throughthe Tour."
Couch's NewOrleans sojourn began with an evening that was bizarre even by Big Easystandards. On the Sunday before the tournament he went barhopping in the FrenchQuarter but got lost trying to find his courtesy car. He accepted a ride from acarful of women who "looked normal," he says, but he soon became uneasywhen they drove him into an unwelcoming part of town. Panicked, he bolted fromthe 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 inthis neighborhood?" Couch took off his shoes, presumably flip-flops, andran barefoot for 20 minutes before seeking refuge in a tattoo parlor andcalling the police. This was probably not what the TV folks had in mind whenthey said during the telecast that New Orleans was back to her old self.
Between the ropesCouch started unspectacularly, making the cut on the number. Then, benefitingfrom relatively calm early conditions on an otherwise brutal Saturday, whenwinds gusted up to 30 miles an hour, he vaulted into the lead with aneight-under 64.
For most of Sundayhe played superb golf--he was eight under through his first 16 holes and 20under 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 anequally bad chip on the 203-yard par-3, he had to jar a 12-footer for bogey toremain in the lead. On the par-4 18th he drove into the left rough and thencaught a flier, hitting a pitching wedge 153 yards and over the green, his ballstopping within inches of the back lip of a bunker.
No one wassurprised when Couch couldn't coax his ball onto the green from the sand, buthe stunned the crowd, and probably himself, when he knocked in his next shotfrom off the side of the green (Big Play, page G30). The shot was reminiscentof Craig Perks's walk-off chip-in at the 2002 Players Championship, not onlybecause the shot ended the tournament but also because Perks was the last guyyou 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 notbeen for No. 185: Craig Perks.
The crowd went wild when Couch pitched in on the 72nd hole to salvage his firstTour win.
Mickelson donated $250,000, plus the $81,720 he made for placing 15th andcountless hours of his time.