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Couples looking to return to form at Tucson

The Mercedes Championships took something away from the Tucson Open -- its defending champion. It also gave something back.

Jim Carter ended a string of 291 PGA Tour events without a victory by winning at Tucson last year. That earned him a spot in the Mercedes, which is open only to 2000 winners.

But Tucson, which went head-to-head with the Match Play Championship for three years before showing up on the schedule opposite the Mercedes, has its strongest field in years and a renewed reputation as the place to break through or revive sagging fortunes -- which might explain the presence of big names like Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and Mark Calcavecchia.

Couples, who hasn't won since 1998, made his last Tucson appearance in 1992, when he finished first on the money list with $1,344,188.

In the last four weeks, Couples changed his putting grip -- putting the right thumb on top of the left -- and decided on a 20-tournament schedule that includes skipping Hawaii next week and then playing five consecutive weeks in Arizona or California.

Although he was 40th in the world and qualified for the 64-man Match Play field last week in Australia, Couples figured starting the season in Tucson would fit his plans better.

"I think I'm a very good player," he said. "I want to play well. I don't think it's that difficult if you've done it before and you know what track you're on to get better.

"Does that mean I'm going to beat Tiger? No. Does that mean I can beat 98 percent of the guys? I think so, and that, to me, is a feat."

Langer missed the cut in Tucson in 1988 and never returned. He's back looking for his first victory on the U.S. tour since his second Masters title in 1993.

Calcavecchia's last appearance in Tucson was in 1998, coincidentally the year he won his last championship.

Couples collected $990,215 last year -- about one-ninth what Tiger Woods earned -- good for 40th.

The first prize in Tucson, which is sponsored by Touchstone Energy, is $540,000, but Couples said he has other reasons for wanting to win.

"If I don't do that, you know, that would be a little unsettling, because my goal is to win," he said.

Woods' nine victories in 2000 reduced the number of players invited to the Mercedes to 33 and simultaneously created better pickings for Tucson.

"I think this year's schedule setup will work in our favor," tournament chairman Tim Stilb said.

The field also includes former major winners like Lee Janzen, John Daly and Curtis Strange and non-winners Steve Flesch and Bob May, who measured up as well as anyone against Woods last year.

May tied Woods' 72-hole score at the PGA Championship, and Flesch had more top 10 finishes (13) than anyone but Woods, who had 17.

"Most of those were fifth through 10th," Flesch said. "I had a second and three fifths, but it's one of those things. The top 10s are great, (and) obviously I played well, but I'm still trying for that first win."

Golfers will play one of the first two rounds at Tucson National and the other at The Gallery, a new course in suburban Marana. The final two rounds will be played at National.


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