Rededicated Couples reaps the fruit of his labor

Forgive Fred Couples for cutting short his post-victory TV interview Sunday. After stepping back to enjoy the view from the top of the mountain, he couldn't help but break down as he looked back at the long, steep trail that led there.

''I mumbled a few things, then basically wanted to get ... out of there,'' Couples said, after breaking into tears during the interview on the 18th green. ''I needed to regroup a little bit."

Regrouping has been the theme of 2003 for Couples, who rededicated himself this winter after all-but-disappearing the last few seasons. The 43-year-old Couples turned to non-nonsense swing coach Butch Harmon to help regain the form that earned him 14 PGA Tour victories and a money title.

The results have been evident all season. Before this week he had missed just one cut and had been in the top 13 in four events. By comparison, Couples had just seven top-10s in the three previous seasons combined while battling a bad back.

We've seen glimpses the Fred Couples of old in 2003, but not many expected this breakthrough. He ended a five-year, 87-tournament winless drought Sunday at the Houston Open, and did it just miles from where he played his college golf at the University of Houston.

Some facts and figures from Couples' week:

  • Couples did his best work on the greens, averaging a tournament-best 26.5 putts per round. His winding 61-footer for birdie on the par-3 eighth Sunday was the biggest, as it came a hole after he made double bogey.

  • He was in the fairway off the tee just 51 percent of the time this week, but was still able to hit over 80 percent of his greens in regulation.

  • Couples made a tournament-best 30 birdies this week, nearly matching his pars (35).

    Five observations
    1. Get used to hammerin' Hank Kuehne's soul patch and go-for-broke style, you'll probably be seeing a lot more of it on the PGA Tour.

    Kuehne, the 1998 U.S. Amateur champ who entered this week on his fourth sponsor's exemption and with no status on the PGA Tour, was in contention right down to the wire Sunday at the Houston Open.

    Stepping to the par-4 18th tee leading by a stroke, Kuehne -- fifth in driving distance for the week -- opted to use the big stick off the tee instead of an iron. He paid for his aggressiveness, landing his tee shot in the water and going on to make a costly bogey. Still, the news wasn't all bad for Kuehne.

    The 27-year-old Dallas native finished tied for second, cashing a $336,000 check for his efforts. That, combined with his third-place check ($208,000) from the BellSouth Classic and some change from the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, brought his 2003 total to a hefty $553,500.

    That's more than enough to guarantee him special temporary status on the PGA Tour for the rest of the year, and just might be enough to secure his full-time tour card for 2004.

    If a non-PGA Tour member finishes in the top 125 on the money list, he is given a tour card for the following year. In 2002, the 125th player earned $515,445. Kuehne already has more than that, and he's sure to keep building on that number now that he can play in as many events as he wants.

    2. Annika Sorenstam took this week off in preparation for her much-hyped appearance on the PGA Tour next month, but her biggest challenge this season may be maintaining her reign atop the LPGA Tour.

    Korean Se Ri Pak, runner-up to Sorenstam on the money list the last two years, earned her second win of the season Sunday at the LPGA Tour's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, prevailing in a four-hole, sudden-death playoff.

    The win lifts Pak ahead of Sorenstam, who has one victory and two second-pace finishes in four events this year, on the money list.

    3. Thirteen-year-old phenom Michelle Wie made the cut again in her second appearance on the LPGA Tour this year.

    The hard-hitting Wie, who last month finished in the top-10 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, shot a consistent 72-70-71 to finish 33rd at the Chick-fil-A. She showed off some of her distance at the 306-yard, par-4 seventh hole Sunday, driving it pin high into the rough.

    The Chick-fil-A was Wie's fifth LPGA Tour event, dating back to last year. She'll play in four more tournaments this year under sponsor's exemptions, the maximum number allowed.

    While Wie was turning heads in Georgia this week, another teenager almost pulled out a victory overseas. Pablo Martin, a 17-year-old Spanish amateur champion, was among six players tied for the lead entering the final round of the European tour's Spanish Open. But he closed with a 74 to finish tied for 22nd.

    4. With a sprawling 7,508-yard layout and little rough, the fledgling Redstone Golf Club -- the fourth-longest course on the PGA Tour -- invited players to let the big dog eat a little more often this week.

    You know it's a forgiving track when the grip-it-and-rip-it king, John Daly, is near the top of the leaderboard. Daly led the field in driving distance (322.8), and despite missing more fairways than he hit, tied for seventh place at 13-under. It was his first top-10 finish in over a year.

    Big John wasn't the only one bombing it in Humble, Texas. Eight of the top 12 finishers averaged more than 300 yards off the tee.

    5. The Champions Tour had its ninth different winner in nine events this week at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, as Bruce Lietzke became the latest to hop on the senior circuit's victory carousel.

    Conspicuously absent from the list of winners is Hale Irwin, who topped the 2002 money list with more than $3 million. He finished tied for 15th at the Legends.

    Irwin won four times last year, but has thus far been shut out in 2003. Still, he has pair of runner-up finishes and two other top-10s in seven events, and is fifth on the money list.

    Up next ...
    PGA Tour: HP Classic of New Orleans
    K.J. Choi defends the first of his two 2002 title this week against a field that includes Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Charles Howell III.

    LPGA Tour: Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill
    Kingsmill hosts its first LPGA Tour event this week after ending its 22-year run hosting a PGA Tour event. Sponsorship woes forced its ouster from the PGA Tour schedule this year, but it was picked up by the women's circuit. Annika Sorenstam and club pro Suzy Whaley, both of whom will tee it up on the PGA Tour this year, are in the field.

    Nationwide Tour: BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs
    The Nicklaus family -- Golden Bear and all -- will play on the Nationwide Tour this week. Jack and his four sons -- Jack II, Steve, Gary and Michael -- will compete together in a tournament for the first time.

    Champions Tour: Bruno's Memorial Classic
    Hale Irwin and Gil Morgan head the field this week in Alabama, where Sammy Rachels will be the defending champion.

    European tour: Italian Open
    Ian Poulter defends in Italy against a field that includes Colin Montgomerie and Seve Ballesteros.

    David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.