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As Usual, Couples Is the One to Beat : Golf: He shares the lead with Stewart, Hammond and Dawson. Kite charges to 66 and trails by one.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Couples finished his round of 67 at the Riviera Country Club early in the afternoon on Saturday and predicted there would be a logjam going into today’s final round of the Nissan Los Angeles Open.

He was right. Four players, including Couples, are tied for the lead at 138, four under par, with seven players only one stroke behind.

Payne Stewart, Donnie Hammond and Marco Dawson joined Couples at the top of the leader board for the rain-shortened, 54-hole tournament.

Tom Kite, the U.S. Open champion, is in the group at 139. A late finisher, Kite shot a five-under-par 66, including a 30 on his back nine.

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Couples, the 1992 player of the year, has won the L.A. Open two of the past three years and likes his chances to become the first repeat winner since Arnold Palmer in 1967.

“I just enjoy the course. I don’t care who is in the lead. I know I can play a good round,” he said. “If it’s good enough with five or six holes to go, I have a chance to win.

“If someone is five or six under for the round, or four or five ahead, you just tip your hat to them.

“I just don’t like to play mediocre.”

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He was hardly that Saturday on a clear day in Pacific Palisades.

Couples would have had the outright lead if he hadn’t bogeyed the par-four 18th hole. He three-putted from 40 feet from the fringe.

There was a sense of urgency after Friday’s round was rained out.

“I was into today’s round a little more than the first day,” Couples said. “The first day I was a little nervous because I expected to do well. It’s my favorite course.

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“Everyone kept saying, ‘You’re going to repeat,’ and I got in with a pretty good round. I was not disappointed.”

Hammond will play with Couples and Dawson--and that suits him fine.

“I love playing with Freddie because it means you’re near the lead,” Hammond said after a 69.

As for Couples’ driving length, Hammond said: “Freddie is pretty long, but he does it with effortless power, where you guys (writers) hit with powerless effort. This course is built for Freddie, as most of them are.

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“It’s hard to shoot a bad round when you have seven birdies,” added Hammond, who also had five bogeys.

Dawson, who is looking for his first victory, shot a bogey-free 67, including an eagle on the par-five 11th, where he holed out a wedge.

Stewart, the 1991 U.S. Open champion, shot a 66 and said he is excited about the way he’s playing.

“Win, lose, or draw tomorrow, I got myself in a position to win,” Stewart said.

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Stewart, in deference to the city where he is playing, was wearing his Raider golf outfit. Today, he will wear the colors of the Rams.

“If I didn’t, I would be booed out of L.A.,” he said.

Kite, starting on the 10th hole, was three-over-par for the tournament after six holes. He got to two under after nine holes and then caught fire.

Kite won the recent Bob Hope Classic with a final round of 62 and was 35 under par for the five-day tournament.

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Asked if he still thinks about it, Kite said: “It’s hard not to think about it. Even if I didn’t, someone would remind me. I still have trouble believing it. I felt like I was a spectator.”

Because of the still wet condition of the course, the lift, clean and place rule was in effect Saturday, causing Kite to comment.

“The course was defenseless from tee to green. The ball stays in the fairway and doesn’t run. It’s really sad because it’s one of the best courses in the world and to see it in this condition tears your heart out.”

Couples got his bogey on the 18th green when his 40-foot putt slid five feet past the hole and then he nicked the cup on his next putt.

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“I wasn’t real bothered,” he said, “but it isn’t much fun to finish with a bogey on any round.”

Couples is a crowd favorite here, which he acknowledged.

“They’re screaming and yelling and pretty vocal,” he said. “I feel I can play good golf here and because of that, more people come out and watch the group I’m in and it makes the day go better.

“People were behind me and it certainly helps.”

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L.A. Open Notes

The 36-hole cut was at 145, with 79 players reaching today’s final round. Tiger Woods, the 17-year-old amateur, did not make it. He was at 74-78--152. Also missing the cut was 16-year-old Ted Oh, who was four strokes better than Woods at 73-75--148. . . . Other players who missed the cut included Davis Love III, Craig Stadler, Lanny Wadkins and Mark Calcavecchia.

The par-three fourth hole proved troublesome to several players. John Daly got a double bogey there, and so did Jim McGovern, who was a co-leader after the first round. Jay Don Blake, Jodie Mudd and Donnie Hammond also got bogeys on the hole. Asked about his bogey at No. 4, Hammond said: “Let me let you play the hole from 245 yards into the wind. Guys were in between clubs, hitting one-irons and three-woods. I think it’s an easy hole. I had a hole in one there a couple of years ago, but I haven’t made par since then.”


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