With PGA Tour status imminent, Couch is riding easy

WICHITA, Kan. -- Chris Couch is driving north on Oklahoma's I-35, straining to focus after 10 hours behind the wheel of the family's new RV.

His attention is diverted by his 4-year-old son, Christian, who is restless from being inside all day. What began as an hourly query of "Are we there yet?" is now on a five-minute loop for the final two hours. His wife Morgan has her hands full in the back with 1-year-old Cayden, and caddie Greg Bitterly is riding shotgun, shouting directions and one-liners -- not necessarily in that order -- anything to keep Chris up and alert.

After navigating the family's 2005 Alfa Camper from Gainesville, Fla., to Wichita -- 1,300 miles in two days -- Couch pulls into the USI RV campground and everybody bounds off.

The Nationwide Tour slogan is "Bring Your Game," but the irony is lost on Couch, who seemingly brings it all.

Once the next big thing in golf, Couch has struggled to find his place, bouncing between the Nationwide and PGA tours since he turned pro. Sixteen years ago, he qualified for the 1990 Honda Open as a 16-year-old, making headlines in Florida before missing the cut. The following year he fended off another young phenom, Tiger Woods, to win the National Junior PGA Championship. Couch was the No. 1-ranked junior amateur player in the nation, Tiger was No. 2.

Couch later helped the University of Florida win a national championship in 1993 and turned pro in '95. Since then, he has played two seasons on the PGA Tour and is currently playing his sixth year on its minor-league counterpart, the Nationwide Tour. At 32 years old, he has pondered retirement twice … only to later reconsider.

It was a wise decision. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Couch is enjoying a career year and having fun again, ranked No. 1 on the Nationwide money list (with $324,104) and holding titles in the Rheem Classic and LaSalle Bank Open. His next win gives him an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour.

Couch earned his first tour card on his fourth trip to Qualifying School in 1998, eight years after his first appearance as a teenager.

"The first tournament of the year is the [1999] Sony Open in Hawaii and I finish in a tie for seventh," Couch recalls with a wry smile. "I was on top of the world at that point. I thought to myself, 'Man, I can play out here.' Then God put me in my place."

Since Couch went pro, God has become a big part of his life. Golf can do that. It's a lonely sport. A caddie can tell you what club to hit, a coach can try to fix your swing and a psychologist can help you think, but ultimately it's just you and the course.

Couch was not ready for failure, and that 1999 season -- T-7 finish at the Sony notwithstanding -- was ripe with failure. He missed the cut in 24 of 30 events and finished the season ranked 181st on the money list, earning just $121,752. Only the top 150 retain partial PGA Tour status.

"It was bad. We were trying to find our place and I didn't know what to do," Morgan Couch said during the trip in the RV, which has her children's artwork decorating the walls. "We were missing cut after cut after cut."

His struggles were unfamiliar to Morgan and, more profoundly, himself.

"I'm such a competitive person. I don't take it well when I don't succeed," Couch said. "I thought it would be easier than it really is."

To a PGA Tour member, there is nothing more bittersweet than leaving the big leagues to toil in the minors. It's not just the purses, although the average PGA purse is around $5 million while the average Nationwide purse is $500,000. It's the benefits that come with the job.

"They have daycare," Morgan said. "They spoil you out there."

Back on the Nationwide, Couch struggled, earning only $253,372 during 2000-'02. That figure may sound like a lot in the normal world, but in the land of professional golf, it barely covers meal money and travel expenses.

And that wasn't even rock bottom.

He failed to make it through Q School in the fall of 2002. He struggled on the Nationwide Tour in '03. And then, in the spring, he lost his mother, Mardi, to cancer. With the family grieving and Chris struggling to earn a living, Morgan went back to work teaching elementary school.

The former No. 1 junior amateur and PGA pro was playing Mr. Mom.

Couch called his friend Cary Splane, then the club pro at his home course, Gainesville Country Club, to ask if he needed help.

"I thought it was time to get a job," Couch says. "Morgan was back working and we have a family to support. It was serious."

Splane listened to his friend, then politely declined.

"There was no way I was going to hire him," Splane says. "He had way too much talent to come work for me as an assistant."

But he did need the money. Chris and Morgan were "dead broke," he says. He called Brenden Pappas, who was having his most successful year on the PGA Tour and asked his friend for a loan.

"That was not an easy call. Brenden and I talked for about 45 minutes when he lent me $3,000," Couch says. "He told me to believe in myself and that it was now or never. Thank God it was now."

A week later, in mid-June, Couch tied for 20th at the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic, his best result of the season. The next week Couch finished second, earning $39,600 -- his best payday in over two years. Soon after he placed fifth at the Knoxville Open. He earned $63,475 in the three weeks after he borrowed money to keep his career alive, almost double what he had earned in all of 2002. He paid back Pappas, paid off his most pressing debts and put away any thoughts of quitting.

In September he won the Oregon Classic, his first win since the opening tournament of 2001. Morgan quit teaching and went on tour with Chris, bringing Christian along. The family was back together, money wasn't an issue and Couch was playing some of the best golf of his life. He won the season-ending Tour Championship and had two other top 10s. More important, Couch finished fourth on the money list and earned his way back onto the PGA Tour.

And they all lived happily ever after, right? No so fast. The big tour was a big nightmare the second time around, too. Couch missed the cut or withdrew from 20 of 24 events in 2004, earning just $100,283, which didn't even cover the cost of his caddie, coach and travel expenses.

Frustrated that he was missing cuts, Couch switched to a cross-handed grip in New Orleans last year and has been using it since. Despite the fact that almost no other professional golfers use such a grip, he's been successful with it.

The proof is in the stats: Couch is averaging 304.1 yards off the tee this season and the rest of his game is falling into place. He currently ranks first in scoring average (69.41) and putting average (1.723).

Everything is right for a return to the big tour.

It's what every Nationwide player wants. Few know this better than Pat Bates, who played the last three years on the PGA Tour before losing his card.

"It's kind of bittersweet to be back here," says Bates, who was the Nationwide's career money leader until Couch surpassed him this year. "My heart was not out here at first, but I am starting to get over it.

"I'm happy for Couch, but it's the kind of stat you don't want. I was the Crash Davis of golf. It just told me I was out here too long."

Couch is focused on only the Nationwide Tour, thanks to a bit of advice he received from a friend.

"One of my best friends is a brain surgeon and he said I needed some help," Couch says with a laugh. "And I agree."

He suggested Couch try visualization and to focus on positive thinking. Morgan sees a distinct difference since he started seeing a sports psychologist, something she has been lobbying Chris to do for a few years. At the Rheem Classic in May, he started the third round with a double-bogey followed by two bogeys, prompting him to bury his wedge into the grass. Couch collected his thoughts and he ground his way to an even-par 70.

"We took a step back and started over on the next hole," Bitterly says. "That happens a lot in golf. You need to forget your last shot and move forward."

The next day, Couch shot a course-record 60 and won the tournament by 5 strokes.

"I was very frustrated and the old me probably would have given up at that point," Couch said after the tournament. "I've been working really hard on my attitude. I kept myself in it."

He proved he can play on the PGA Tour six weeks later at the Western Open. Couch took the 36-hole lead and finished tied for 13th, earning $96,000.

But Couch remains a Nationwide Tour member … for now. At the Wichita Open, where a win would have given him a PGA Tour promotion, Couch was the third-round co-leader. On Sunday he faltered and shot even-par, finishing tied for sixth place. He earned a paycheck of $16,506, bringing his overall total to $324,104.

After the tournament, Couch and crew were back in the RV and heading north on I-35 toward Omaha, Neb., site of this week's tournament, only five hours away. He's close to putting the Nationwide Tour in his rearview mirror once again, with the open road of the PGA Tour right in front of him.

And so far, Couch is enjoying the ride.

Dan Galvin is a reporter for ESPN the Magazine. He can be reached at Dan.Galvin@espn3.com