WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Surrounded by vintage movie posters on the walls and a pair of Pekingese puppies nipping at his heels, Chris Couch sits back on a worn leather sofa in the living room of his split-level home and begins to share the unlikely story of his 2006 Zurich Classic victory and the unlikelier story of his nighttime scare in the post-Katrina streets of New Orleans earlier that week and the unlikeliest story of what he perceives was a PGA Tour cover-up of the unvarnished truth.
Fittingly wearing an old football jersey and gym shorts, the man listed understatedly at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, now looks more like a retired linebacker than a professional golfer. Couch, 39, has been sidelined by a back injury since last August, limiting him to few non-physical therapy forms of activity, save for bench pressing. And so he’s done that, over and over, making him perhaps the strongest player on the PGA Tour, if not also the least agile.
He tried to play a few holes recently at West Orange Country Club, here in his backyard. After traversing the opening four holes in 1 under, his back gave out and he limped home – almost quite literally.
Some days aren’t too bad, though. Some days he’s able to wake up, head to his physical therapy session and put in a solid workout. This isn’t one of them.
“Today is a bad day,” Couch reports. “My back is killing me. I was set to go to the gym, but didn’t make it. I woke up this morning and I couldn’t walk.”
Instead, he’s camped out in front of the television, a wad of chewing tobacco wedged into his lower lip and a super-sized Mountain Dew resting within arm’s reach. His wife, Julia, lounges on the other end of the sofa, dutifully checking her cellphone, while their 3-year-old daughter, Cora, plays with Barbie dolls in an adjacent room.
As Couch gets into his stories – beginning with a robbery, ending with a victory and alleging a cover up – he maintains that he has no ax to grind against any PGA Tour officials. This isn’t about getting anybody in trouble or seeking any sort of revenge. But when he looks back at his lone Tour victory from seven years ago and thinks about the tale that was spun in varying levels of vagueness, the regret eats at him from the inside.
“I explained to them that I’m a Christian and I don’t understand why I can’t just tell the truth,” he recalls. “I really don’t like to lie. But they pretty much told me I had to do it.”
The 2006 edition of the Zurich Classic was unlike any PGA Tour event before or since. The city of New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina eight months earlier, its death toll inching close to 2,000 while hundreds of thousands of residents were left without homes. It was labeled the costliest natural disaster in history and the ensuing governmental outreach toward the community was often rendered little more than a punch line.
In a city with such devastating damage, staging a golf tournament isn’t the ultimate priority. And yet, from local officials to tournament organizers to a title sponsor, which had just climbed on board one year earlier, it was seen as part of the rebuilding process. This was a clear way to prove to residents and outsiders alike that New Orleans was prepared to hold its first nationally televised sporting event since Katrina.
Not that it was easy. Host course TPC Louisiana remained under water, which meant a return to former venue English Turn Golf & Country Club. Nor was it a simple task to recruit professional golfers to a region where they were worried about issues like flooded streets and air pollution, which actually weren’t issues at all.
“That was our biggest challenge,” remembers Darrah Schaefer, chairman of the board for the Fore! Kids Foundation and a 22-year veteran of the tournament who was in charge of player operations that year. “We had to spend a lot of time on the road. We had to give players the assurance that the city was safe and it was a real opportunity to compete. There was a lot of speculation as to whether the city was really back, because the news showed Canal Street and a lot of the lawlessness. We knew it had been fixed, but the national perception wasn’t there yet.”
As it turned out, contesting the tournament was the right call. Louisiana residents David Toms and Kelly Gibson helped raise millions of dollars for the relief effort. Phil Mickelson decided to pitch in his entire paycheck, but when that totaled only $87,720, he rounded up to make it a cool quarter-million. Other players followed suit, giving the event a feel-good vibe of being both an official tournament and a charitable contribution to the community.
In this celebration of camaraderie and support, it’s easy to understand where a singular tale of misadventure within the city’s outer limits was a square peg in this round hole. It wouldn’t fit the week’s theme. It wouldn’t help the perception that New Orleans was back.
Following rounds of 78-73 that left him well outside the Shell Houston Open cut line, Couch made a beeline to New Orleans on Sunday morning in an effort to beat the traffic, so to speak. He was already suffering through an unbearably frustrating season, earning just $22,278 in nine starts and missing the cut in all but two of them. For those who had kept an eye on Couch throughout his career, the numbers were mystifying.
This is a player who at 16 qualified for the Honda Classic. One year later, he was the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the country. He attended the University of Florida, where he was a two-time All-America selection. In 1993, he holed the clinching putt for the Gators’ third NCAA title in team history.
Despite that pedigree, Couch turned pro and found varying degrees of success. He would clean up on the Nationwide Tour, and then struggle on the PGA Tour. Back and forth, year by year. He thought about quitting a few times. In 2003, he was on the verge of hanging up the spikes for good when he received an hour-long pep talk from fellow pro and longtime friend Brenden Pappas. That pep talk was punctuated by a $3,000 loan – enough for Couch to play three more events, where he finished T-20, T-2 and solo fifth and continued soldiering on toward his dream.
There was no reason, though, after years of futility and a struggling start to the 2006 season that Couch could be optimistic about the Zurich Classic. When he arrived four days early with trainer Ron Benner, who was making his PGA Tour caddying debut that week, the idea was twofold. Sure, it gave him an extra day to iron out any problems with his swing. But there was something else.
Couch figured if he was ever going to check out the controlled delirium of Bourbon Street, this was going to be the night.
The following is Couch’s account of what took place that night. There is no police report on record. Any witnesses were never identified, let alone locatable years later. His word is the only word that exists. As he speaks, the narrative he’s held in publicly for so many years comes pouring out. This is his story.
“I told Ron, ‘We’ll just kind of walk down the street, hit some bars, have some dinner – that kind of stuff. And that’s what we did. We probably got there around 7. Hit some bars, had some dinner, just walked the whole street. I told him I was going to stop in a bank over there and get some money, since I wasn’t coming back down there. He said, ‘OK, I’ll meet you at the car.’ So I hopped in the bank, got some money. It was this huge bank, you have to walk through some glass doors to get to the ATM. Anyhow, I came out and he had headed to the car. I just got turned around, I guess. I was wandering around for 10-15 minutes and I couldn’t find my way back to the car.
“So I saw this cop on the side of the road; he was leaning on a white SUV and he was talking to the people inside. I went up to the cop and said, ‘Look, I’ve gotten turned around here. I parked my car at the Sleep Inn. Can you guide me to the Sleep Inn?’ As the cop was starting to say something, there were four girls inside. They said, ‘We’re heading over that way. Do you want us to give you a ride?’ I was thinking, this cop is talking to them. I’m sure there’s no harm here. So I said, ‘Sure, if you could drop me off, that would be great.’
“And so I hopped in and about five minutes into the drive, I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ This was just after Katrina and we were heading toward abandoned buildings and stuff like that. So I said, ‘What’s going on? Where are you taking me?’ I grew up with street smarts, so I knew something was wrong. I saw the girl in the front passenger seat reach into the glove compartment and pull out something and she put it in her right hand. I thought, she’s either got a Taser or a gun. These girls are going to try to rob me.
“I was sitting behind the driver in the backseat, so I grabbed the shoulder of the driver – in case they Tased me, she’d get Tased, too. And then the two girls in the backseat started going through my pockets. As they were grabbing stuff, I was trying to grab it back.
“I had two phones at the time; they took both phones. They got very little cash, because the cash I took out of the ATM, I had in my left pocket and I was in the left backseat behind the driver’s seat, so they couldn’t get to that. I stuck my Rolex in my pocket, too. They got my credit card and charged $900, but I was able to cancel that later.
“When they slowed down, I jumped out of the car. As I jumped out, another car pulled up alongside them. Four guys jumped out. So now I don’t know where I am. I have sandals on. And I’m kind of in an abandoned place. These four guys jump out of the car and I just kind of said, ‘Come on. Let’s go.’ I looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘If you want a piece of me, I’ll take all four of you on.’ They jumped back in their car and both cars took off.
“I ended up running back toward town; I probably ran for 15-20 minutes, I’m talking running pretty hard the whole way. The first place I saw was this tattoo parlor. So I walked in there and told the guy who owned the place what had happened. He said, ‘OK, let’s call the cops.’ He gave me a beer, which calmed my nerves. He was a nice guy.
“Anyway, the cops showed up and I told them what happened. They took me to the department and I explained it to a detective, but it just seemed like they dropped it after that.
“So that’s how the night went down. Nothing ever happened. They didn’t look for the people or anything.”
When he arrived at English Turn the next day, Couch met with members of the PGA Tour security team, local law enforcement officials and tournament organizers. At this point, he was just one of 156 players in the field – and hardly a celebrated one at that. With just those two made cuts in nine previous starts, there’s little doubt those in the room assumed the situation would blow over without garnering much attention from the media.
Even so, Couch contends that he was instructed to “cover up” any information about what had happened the night before. “The Tour didn’t want me to say anything, because they said they’d just gotten done with Hurricane Katrina and this was the last thing they needed, bad media about a PGA Tour player getting mugged at gunpoint or Taser or whatever that girl had,” he recalls. “They just said this would be bad for the first sporting event back to New Orleans since the hurricane.”
Others in that meeting maintain that no such instructions were ever given.
“I don’t believe that there was any agenda,” Schaefer says. “I don’t think it was the PGA Tour trying to cover anything up. There were a lot of stories at the time that dealt with the lack of safety in the city. They were very concerned with this not snowballing in terms of what actually happened. … The questions kept coming up: Is the city safe or not? Did you go looking for trouble and find it? Or did something come find you? We encourage everybody to come and compete, but we’re not going to tell you what to do outside the ropes.”
He even suggests there was more to the story that the PGA Tour’s security personnel had uncovered. “They weren’t dealing with speculation; there wasn’t any supposition. They were dealing with actual information.”
Though he wasn’t on site at the tournament that week, PGA Tour executive vice president of communications Ty Votaw reports, “I confirmed that officials did speak with Chris, but those conversations were more concerned with respect to his welfare.” Votaw strongly maintains that the Tour would never issue a “cover-up.”
For five days, the story hardly surfaced. There was some scuttlebutt on the driving range – one rumor among competitors had Couch kidnapped and driven to Mississippi – but otherwise, nobody made too much of a big deal about the struggling pro who got into a little after-dark trouble.
It still wasn’t news on Friday, when Couch barely exceeded his recent brand of unremarkable golf to make the cut on the number. The next day, he took advantage of an early tee time, posting an 8-under 64 in blustery, swirling winds to eventually move into first place entering the final round.
After he finished, Couch was asked about the rumored story by a few reporters. Heeding the instruction (or was it advice?) offered in that prior meeting, he told them in part, “They looked normal, so I thought I could get a ride with them. I jumped in their car, but it got kind of weird. I didn’t really like the situation, so I hopped out of the car and I was in the middle of nowhere.” He recounted the story without many details, shrugged it off as little more than an interesting night in the Big Easy.
Sunday’s final round provided one of the more memorable finishes in recent memory. Still in the lead on the tournament’s penultimate hole, it seemed like the proverbial clock had struck midnight, Couch’s carriage instantly turning into a pumpkin.
After making a mess of the hole, he found himself with a 12-foot putt to save bogey. He sank it. That brought him to the final hole, leading by one in search of an unlikely first PGA Tour triumph. After a good drive, Couch hit a pitching wedge that flew the green and somehow – to this day, he doesn’t know how – stopped on a downslope in a greenside bunker so saturated, he thought it felt “like concrete.”
Using an unorthodox yet effective cross-handed chipping motion, he dislodged the ball from the bunker, but barely landed it in the rough behind the green. Knowing he could likely get up-and-down to still force a playoff, Couch stood over the ball. He prayed. Then he swung.
The ball rolled and rolled and rolled and disappeared into the cup. Couch threw his arms in the air and let out the loudest whoop of his career. In the CBS booth nearby, Lanny Wadkins blurted an expletive on live television. Tournament organizers and security personnel who six days earlier listened to the story of a competitor finding trouble in their city perhaps had their worst fear realized.
After the round, when the adrenaline had finally settled down and reality was setting in, Couch plopped into a chair in the interview room to meet with the assembled media. He was asked about the cross-handed, walk-off chip, of course. He was asked about the $3,000 loan from Pappas. He was asked about his stellar amateur career and not-so-stellar professional career. And then he was asked about the previous Sunday night, almost one week to the minute earlier, and the champion answered in the most roundabout way he could.
Q: Chris, this has been a long week for you beginning with last Sunday night. Obviously we know the story about it. Is there anything in there that you want to fill in the holes for us?
A: I haven’t seen what was written, but I’m sure it was all the truth.
Q: We assume you will not celebrate the same place tonight that you celebrated?
A: Yeah, I don’t know. You never know. You might see me down there. I kind of like Bourbon Street. I like the city. It was unfortunate what happened.
Q: I’m curious, did you ever locate the cellphone? Did you call…
A: No, I haven’t. I have another one, though.
Q: Can you put this whole week into perspective? Can you imagine any other winner of this tournament has ever had a week in the city like you have?
A: I doubt it. It’s been an adventure. But it couldn’t have worked out better.
And that was that. The man who says he detests lying may not have lied, exactly, but he never quite told the entire truth, either.
All of which should lead to this question: Why now?
Why, after seven years of vagueness, after seven years of hidden details and roundabout answers, why is Chris Couch finally ready to tell his story?
“I think the truth should be told,” he says. “I think with every situation, people should be honest. I mean, honesty is the best way to go. Sometimes when you’re in the wrong, you’ve got to be honest and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake.’ I may have had a couple too many drinks that night and my judgment wasn’t very good, but looking back, my instincts told me these have to be OK people.”
Couch lumbers from his sofa to the front door. His back hurts. On days such as these, he can barely walk, let alone think about playing competitive golf. Before reaching the door, he reflects one last time – not just on the incident in New Orleans, but on a few years of having trouble find him off the course – and thinks about where he is now.
He senses a connection.
“I was kind of in a bad point in my life where I was going out a lot and just doing things I shouldn’t have been doing,” he admits. “I think those things have caught up to me. Maybe I’m getting punished for my behavior now, which I probably deserve.”