Notes: Couch stays close after lucky break

Jim Furyk acknowledges the crowd at Bay Hill's final hole.

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Chris Couch, playing on a medical extension, is three shots back of Ernie Els entering the final round at Bay Hill.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Chris Couch guesses he wrote to Arnold Palmer about 18 straight years asking for an exemption at Bay Hill – with no luck.

He finally caught a break Saturday.

Couch’s approach on the 18th from 152 yards out bounced not once, not twice, but three times off the rocks – narrowly missing the water – and skipped onto the green. He saved par and closed with a 3-under 69 in the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, finishing 7 under for the tournament and three shots behind leader Ernie Els.

“I kept thinking, ‘Please, please, bounce on the green, baby, bounce on the green,’” Couch said. “I’ve never considered myself a very lucky person on the golf course. But that was a great break at the right time.”

Couch has long waited for this chance.

A high school phenom who now lives in the Orlando area, Couch qualified for the 1990 Honda Classic at age 16 but missed the cut. He gained entry at Bay Hill this year because he was high enough in the FedExCup standings.

“I was very thrilled,” he said. “It was nice to get in, being a local. I have a lot of friends around that love to come out and watch and it was enjoyable having them out there today, and hearing their screams and yells and having my wife out there.”

Even being able to play this week could be considered an accomplishment.

Couch had to withdraw at the Transitions Championship last week with a right knee injury that prevented him from walking, even though he couldn’t figure out how it got hurt. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder in 2007, and then he had an episode known as “frozen shoulder” in 2008 where he had no movement.

“A lot of rehab, a lot of prayers,” Couch said. “It’s been frustrating. “

So imagine the relief when the ball bounced on the green on 18. For Couch, it was merely another footnote to add in an up-and-down career.

“I don’t know if it will make ten worst or ten best,” he joked.

• • •

CHANCE MEETING: Brad Faxon played golf at Isleworth on Saturday morning and ran into Tiger Woods on the back of the range.

“I haven’t seen him since the accident and he hasn’t seen me,” Faxon, an NBC Sports analyst, said during the telecast. “I was as nervous to see him as anything. I walked out there and said, ‘Do you need a putting lesson?’ He started laughing.”

Faxon, an eight-time winner who played on two Ryder Cup teams, is regarded as one of the best putters in golf.

He said Woods was getting ready for the Masters and appeared on edge.

“And what I think he’s most nervous about is getting there on Monday in front of everybody who he hasn’t been in front of for a long time,” Faxon said. “I feel for him. It’s going to be hard for him that day. I have no problem believing that when he puts that peg in the ground on Thursday, he’ll be fine. But those first few days are going to be tough.”

• • •

GETTING THERE: There might not be a better example of how things have changed for Jim Furyk than his final hole Saturday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Furyk hit a 6-iron from 192 yards out so far left that the ball bounced off the grandstands, ricocheted off a railing, redirected off a marshal’s hat and landed safely in low-lying rough for a much easier chip onto the green. He saved par, ended with a third-round 66 and signed the ball for the marshal on his way out.

“You get the one with the green mark on it,” Furyk said, smiling.

And why not?

After ending his longest stretch without a victory on the PGA Tour at last week’s Transitions Championship, Furyk is looking to make it two straight wins. He moved 5 under for the tournament and five shots behind leader Ernie Els.

Not bad for a guy who made the cut by one stroke a day earlier.1

“It’s a little bit of a hangover-type feeling after winning to kind of come back and mentally be prepared,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind winning again.”

Furyk put himself in position to do so rather quickly.

He made up six strokes in seven holes early in his round when the greens were still moist from the low fog that blanketed Bay Hill before dawn. The run was highlighted with an eagle on No. 6 when he nailed a three wood from 242 yards out to within 33 feet, sinking the putt.

After going 32 months and 58 tournaments between PGA Tour wins until last week, Furyk wants to avoid repeating such a drought. He did capture the Chevron World Challenge in December at Sherwood against a world-class field, but his last win on the PGA Tour came in the 2007 Canadian Open.

With the Masters only two weeks away, Furyk feels his luck is starting to change just in time.

“I feel better than I have the last couple years,” he said. “I’m close. I’m not saying I’m ready, but I’m a lot closer than I’ve been for two or three years.”

• • •

ARNIE ADVICE: Arnold Palmer took to the television airwaves Saturday to deliver a similar message again to Tiger Woods as he prepares to make his return in two weeks at the Masters.

“My advice would be to open up to the media,” Palmer said while sharing the booth with NBC Sports’ Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller.

“To bring them in and talk to them, and talk to them like a man. That’s the only way you’re going to accomplish what he wants to accomplish right now. He needs to open the door, let them come in and talk to them like he knows them.”

Woods is missing Bay Hill – just around the corner from his Isleworth mansion – for the first time in his career. It had been the only regular PGA Tour event he played every year. Palmer has said he was disappointed Woods wasn’t playing.

• • •

DIVOTS: With rain and thunderstorms expected Sunday afternoon, the final round at Bay Hill will be played with threesomes starting on split tees at 8:30 a.m. Mostly cloudy skies with a high around 82 degrees is forecast before the rain pushes in. The tournament is expected to finish around 3:30 p.m., far earlier than when Tiger Woods won last year with a dramatic 12-foot birdie on the 18th under fading light and popping flashbulbs. ... Phil Mickelson started Saturday one shot off the lead, but his third round 75 put him seven shots down entering the final round.

AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this story.

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