Fred Couples is Toshiba Classic champion

NEWPORT BEACH – For about six years during the 1980s, Fred Couples lived in Newport Beach, near Hoag Hospital.

He was an honorary member at Santa Ana Country Club and would spend a lot of time hitting balls at the Newport Beach Golf Course driving range at night.

“I loved it here,” Couples said.

Though he had never played Newport Beach Country Club, he certainly showed that he admired the course throughout the weekend at the Toshiba Classic.

He won the 16th annual Champions Tour event by shooting a final-round six-under-par 64 and finished 18-under-par 195 to win by four strokes Sunday.

Shortly after collecting his $255,500 check, he talked about his only regret with Newport Beach.

“I would get on my hands and knees if I owned [that Newport Beach home] and I still lived there,” said Couples, the 1992 Masters champion. “That was an unbelievable place …The reason I got out of there, I never played any golf.”

He was certainly fine with playing golf this weekend, and he’s been OK with competing on the Champions Tour, for golfers 50 and older.

As a rookie on this tour, he has won in two out of three starts. Sunday was his second straight victory and he opened the year with a runner-up finish in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii.

That’s where he finished second to Tom Watson, last year’s British Open runner-up. The 60-year-old was up to his old tricks again in the final round. Watson, the 39-time PGA Tour winner, shot the best round of the day, a nine-under 62, which tied Hale Irwin’s tournament record, set in 1998, for the lowest score in the final round. Watson also matched his career-best on the Champions Tour with that score.

But Couples’ play on the back nine helped him top the field, as Ronnie Black finished second at 14 under (67-67-65). Tom Lehman (67-65-69) and Chien Soon Lu (65-67-69) tied for third at 12 under, and Watson (69-71-62) and Loren Roberts (67-67-68) tied for fifth at 11 under.

Couples started Saturday, one shot behind the lead after a 66. But a 64 in the second round gave him a two-shot lead into the final round, when golfers dealt with winds up to 20 mph.

He attracted a large gallery each day, and gave a boost to the attendance numbers on Friday. That was when an estimated 25,500 spectators came to watch, setting a Toshiba Classic record for first-round attendance. There were 66,500 who came during the three-day tournament to watch Couples take over the Toshiba Classic.

He held the advantage with four birdies and an eagle on the back nine.

The eagle on the par-five, 492-yard No. 15 virtually sealed the win. A 6-iron got him onto the green to within 18 feet of the cup for his eagle putt.

He seemed to make it all appear so effortless. Even when he had hit, “the worst shot I’ve ever hit, maybe,” he still made it look easy.

The aforementioned shot, was his second on the 510-yard, par-five 18th, when it went way to the right, hitting atop the grandstands.

But, he still got onto the green 20 feet from the cup and then sank it for birdie.

“I don’t even know what I did,” Couples said. “I swung so fast, and it looked so easy, and I just said I’m going to hit it up there on the green and two-putt, make birdie and go home and it ended up, it went that way.

“[My caddie] Joey [LaCava] got all the green paint off the ball, so when I putted it, it was clean. But it was a great way to finish to make that putt and get over some of the embarrassment on that second shot.”

When it comes to his play on the Champions Tour, Couples has hardly anything to be ashamed of.

He’s No. 1 in driving distance (298.7 yards), which has certainly come in handy. He’s also the top-ranked golfer at 56-under through nine rounds.

His hot start has also put him in rare company on the Champions Tour, as he has matched the starts golf greats Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player made.

“I think this is a great tour,” said Couples, who became the sixth player in Toshiba Classic history to win the tournament in his first appearance. “I feel good about being on the tour and I certainly think that I’m helping the tour, and I’m helping myself by winning two out of the three.”

NOTES:

*Couples has won$691,000 in three starts and he leads the money race on the Champions Tour, nearly $270,000 over Bernhard Langer, the 2008 Toshiba Classic champion.

*Couples leads the Charles Schwab Cup race, which determines the top golfer on the Champions Tour. He leads with 691 points, 291 in front of Langer.

*Lehman celebrated his 51st birthday Sunday.

*Eduardo Romero failed in his bid to become the Toshiba Classic’s first repeat champion. With a six-under 207, he finished tied for 17th (67-69-71).

*John Cook, a part-time Corona del Mar resident, finished tied for seventh at nine-under 204 (70-66-68).

*Corey Pavin had his first top-10 finish of the year, finishing tied for seventh. This year's Ryder Cup captain closed with a four-under 67.

*The tournament raised about $900,000, a preliminary amount, for Hoag Hospital Foundation. In the prior 12 years, the tournament generated more than $12.1 million for charity.

*The total attendance for tournament week, which began March 1, was more than 75,000.

*Sunday yielded 37 rounds below 70 compared to 25 and 20 for Friday and Saturday, respectively. Conversely, there were only 23 rounds over par in the final round compared to 33 and 37 for first and second rounds, respectively.

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