Sunday, November 25, 2007

skins game

INDIAN WELLS, California (AFP) ― Canada's Stephen Ames drained a seven-foot birdie putt at a final hole worth 650,000 dollars on Sunday to win the Skins Game for the second year in a row.

Ames finished the two-day, four-player post-season event with nine skins and a total of 675,000 dollars out of the one million-dollar purse.

Prior to his winning putt, Ames had been shut out since winning 25,000 dollars on the first hole on Saturday.

"That's a Skins game - that's the beauty of it," Ames said. "It has always been the way you play at the Skins game. You kind of let the other guys beat themselves up and then you just sneak in when you need to."

At the last, Ames gave himself a great birdie chance when he hit a nine-iron from 142 yards.

Masters champion Zach Johnson, longtime Skins Game stalwart Fred Couples and Brett Wetterich all missed longer putts.

"Standing over the putt, I felt a little nervous, so I had to go back to some of the things I've done in the past - focus on my breathing and stuff," Ames said. "Yeah, I made a great putt, and it went right in the middle of the hole, exactly where I saw it. So that was the fun part.

"It's not quite the the Masters, but it's 675,000 dollars."

Ames also admitted he thought someone else would birdie the last hole.

"I thought if it wasn't Freddy it was going to be Brett," Ames said. "And when they both missed, I was like, 'Oh, wow, that's to me.'"

Couples a five-time champion who was playing in the 25-year-old tournament for the 14th time, won a total of nine skins worth 325,000 dollars. That pushed his career earnings in the event to 4.2 million dollars.

Couples started the day strong, capturing Sunday's opener - the 10th - for a prize of 250,000 dollars.

The hole's value had climbed as no one claimed a skin by winning a hole outright over the last five holes on Saturday.

Holes 11-17 were then shared, leading to the mammoth payout and the victory for Ames at the last.

Last year, Ames' winning total was 590,000 dollars. He sealed that victory with a three-foot birdie putt worth 270,000 dollars. Couples was also runner-up last year.

"Somebody's going to birdie the 18th hole, probably, and Stephen did it to win a big, big, big skin," Couples said. "If you win the right holes, you win money."

Both Johnson and Wetterich were shut out over the two days.

"I certainly enjoyed the experience and playing with these three guys," Johnson said. "It's a very unique event. It's nothing like I've ever been familiar with.

"But when all is said and done, I'm very disappointed," he admitted. "I came here to win some skins, and I didn't."
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. Nov. 25 ― Impervious to the whims of style, the ravages of time and even global warming, Fred Couples is still as cool as a fall morning in the desert. This has always been one of golf's sure things, and it remains unchanged. Only one thing in life can make Couples sweat, and Sunday his oft-injured back felt good enough to prevent any beads from popping out on his brow.

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Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Fred Couples after a birdie in the Skins Game Sunday in Indian Wells, Calif. He won four skins and $325,000 in the event.

P.G.A. Tour
Leader Board Results/Schedule Stats | Money Leaders 2007 Majors
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L.P.G.A. | Champions European This is a good thing, of course, for golf and for Couples, 48, who has been sidelined from competition since April. That was when, after playing through excruciating back pain while making the cut in the Masters, he was forced to put up his clubs until a few weeks ago. Sunday, as he stood casually on a mound left of the 10th fairway at the Indian Wells Resort, preparing to hit his second shot on the final nine holes at the Skins Game, it was almost as if he had never left.

People leaned over the balconies and stood on the roof of the adjacent Hyatt Grand Champions hotel to watch as Couples surveyed the ball sitting atop the Bermuda rough. He delivered a shot worth watching, too, one of many he produced over the course of the two-day event. With a $250,000 carry-over skin on the line, Couples hit a tight draw from 158 yards to within 5 feet. He won the skin with a birdie, giving him four in two days for a total of $325,000 and the lead over the defending champion, Stephen Ames, and the Skins rookies Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich.

Ames was laughing and applauding in the middle of the fairway. "Great shot, great shot," he said, quickly adding, "Hitting fairways is overrated."

It certainly was in the Skins Game, as Ames became aware and as Johnson, the Masters champion who missed only one fairway, found out. It was more about hitting the right fairway at the right time and making the right putt at the right time, as Ames did on the first and last holes. Ames's first skin Saturday was worth $25,000 and his last Sunday was worth $650,000, giving him the victory over Couples and shutting out Johnson and Wetterich.

"It's really just potluck," said Couples, known as "The Skins King" for the more than $4 million he has won in 14 Skins Game appearances. "If you win the right holes, you win money."

Couples's success stems from his acceptance of the vagaries of the Skins Game format.

"You don't come into these things looking to win them," he said.

Never has that been truer for Couples. He came into this event looking to hit some good shots, to shake off the rust, to test his back and to see what would happen to his swing when the red light came on the TV camera.

The answers he got were somewhat encouraging. Although he said afterward, "I didn't really play any better than anybody else," he did. Had their actual scores been kept, Couples would have finished with a six-under-par 65, three strokes better than Johnson's 68 and seven better than Wetterich's 72.

Ames was three under for 17 holes, but took an 'X' on the 15th hole when he hit his drive in a flower bed and picked up. He took a double bogey to finish with a 71. More important than the score were the quality of the shots Couples hit during the two days.

While he acknowledged that the skins format is "hit and giggle," that does not mean he was not trying. When he was in his prime a little more than a decade ago, Couples was among the best ball-strikers on the PGA Tour, often going weeks without missing a shot. Other players would ask, only half joking, "Have you ever actually missed a shot?"

So to come into a competition as the featured draw having hit few shots recently was a little unnerving, even for the most unflappable of golfers.

"At first, I was a little hesitant because I have not played," Couples said earlier this week, "and it took, you know, a good couple days to ask a few people if they wanted to see my mug again. A couple people said, 'Of course.' So I decided to play."

Play he did. He averaged 299 yards on 14 drives, most of which hit the fairway. His only big miss with the driver came Sunday at the 14th hole, where he pulled his drive under a palm tree and was forced to try to hit a severe cut with a 3-wood. A shot he pulled off. By and large, his trajectory was good, and he hit one 3-wood ― a 253-yard cut to 15 feet at the 12th hole ― that should have been framed.

Then there was the eagle he made by holing out from the bunker Saturday at No. 4. It was definitely not a fluke. Couples flayed his sand wedge on a slight downhill lie from 35 yards, dropped the ball softly on the green 35 feet from the hole and watched as it rolled like a putt and fell in.

It appears his recent work with Butch Harmon has been bearing fruit. He shot a 60 last Friday at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, tying the course record held by Tiger Woods. He said he would play in the Shark Shootout on Dec. 5-9, then see how his back holds up after continued work with the specialist John Patterson, who also works with the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady.

For now, Couples dispassionately evaluates his progress by saying: "I came here without too many expectations and I feel like it turned out all right. I hit a few pathetic shots, but had decent control of my golf ball most of the time. I'm hoping it keeps getting better and we'll see what happens."


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