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Unlikely Couch seals New Orleans victory

By Staff
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NEW ORLEANS, May 1 (Reuters) Unheralded American Chris Couch produced one of the PGA Tour's most unlikely wins with a dramatic one-shot victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans yesterday.

The 32-year-old from Florida, who has played mainly on the minor Nationwide Tour, chipped in from thick rough behind the green at the last for an unlikely par-four and a seven-under-par 65.

That left Couch on 19-under 269, just ahead of playing partner Charles Howell III whose 65 earned him a tie for second with PGA Tour veteran Fred Funk, after a best-of-the-week 62.

''It was a lot of fun today,'' a smiling Funk told reporters.

''A lot of stuff happened that was really good.

''I played extremely good and I'm really pleased. I haven't played really well for a while and I've been struggling with my putting.'' One stroke clear overnight, Couch covered the front nine at English Turn Golf&Country Club in a blistering six-under 30 to forge three ahead of the pack on a day of low-scoring.

Despite feeling the pressure down the stretch, the twice All-America selection from the University of Florida appeared to have the title firmly within his grasp after a three-foot birdie putt at the 16th put him two ahead.

However, the gum-chewing American dropped his only shot of the round after finding a greenside bunker off the tee at the par-three 17th and did well to avoid a double-bogey there by holing a ten-footer.

Against the odds, he avoided another error on 18, despite finding another bunker after overhitting the green with his wedge approach and underhitting his third shot into a thick collar of rough.

Australia's Stuart Appleby, hunting his third PGA Tour title of the year, holed his approach at the sixth for an eagle-three on his way to a 64 and a share of fourth place at 15-under 273 with Americans Brett Wetterich (66) and Joe Durant (68).

SIX BIRDIES American Lucas Gover was a further stroke back in a four-way tie for seventh, a run of six birdies in seven holes helping him to a 63.

US Masters champion Phil Mickelson, chasing his third title in a row, had to settle for a share of 15th after closing with a 69.

Couch, who has made just three cuts in 10 starts on the 2006 PGA Tour, set the tone for a memorable day with birdies on the first three holes.

Wearing reflective sunglasses, he hit his approach to three feet at the first before chipping in from just off the green at the par-three third to move two strokes clear.

Another birdie followed at the fifth before Howell picked up his fourth shot at the par-five sixth, holing a 25-footer to close to within a stroke of the lead. Moments later, Couch missed a three-foot birdie putt at the same to stay one ahead.

However, Couch put that setback behind him at the very next hole, a superb approach to 10 feet earning him his fifth birdie.

The tall American, who considered giving up the game in 2003, parred the eighth before setting up birdie number six with another pinpoint approach at the ninth.

A 10-footer for birdie at the 12th took Couch to 19 under and he did well to save par at the 13th where he missed the fairway off the tee and failed to reach the green with his second.

Howell rolled in a 25-footer to birdie that hole and trim Couch's lead to one.

Although Couch missed a five-footer for birdie on the island green at the par-five 15th, he appeared to put the tournament beyond reach of his rivals at the next hole, where an approach to within three feet of the flag set up his eighth birdie.

REUTERS DH RK0535

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