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Tough title defence ahead for Fred Couples

Fred Couples will try to defend his championship at the Houston Open, beginning Thursday. History says he'll fail -- and so does Couples.

The Houston event, the 10th oldest on the PGA Tour, first was played in 1946, and no defending champion has won.

``It's just been one of those quirks in our event,'' says Steve Timms, executive director of the Houston Golf Association and the tournament director. ``This would be a good year to break that trend.''

But the 44-year-old Couples, a 15-time winner on the Tour, doesn't figure to break the hex.

``I can't foresee right now being here Sunday night,'' he said Wednesday in the media tent, where tournament officials will bring the winner. ``If you talk to any good player, they come here to win. That's not necessarily my goal any more ... My goals aren't like they used to be.''

Seven players, Arnold Palmer among them, have won at least twice here and Curtis Strange won three times (1980, 1986 and 1988).

Palmer came the closest to winning in consecutive years, taking the 1966 event, then finishing second the next year, one shot behind Frank Beard.

Defending a title elsewhere has not been as daunting.

At the Nissan Open, an event that's been around in some form in the Los Angeles area since 1926, Mike Weir backed up his 2003 victory with another this year. The Texas Open, a PGA stop since 1922, was won by Justin Leonard in 2000 and 2001. Palmer won it three straight times from 1960 to 1962.

At the Byron Nelson Classic, first played in 1944 as the Dallas Open, Tom Watson made it three straight beginning in 1979. Other longtime tourneys have had similar experiences.

Not Houston.

``You have to play extremely well,'' Couples said. ``You have to beat the golf course eight straight times. Guys have done it, but it's hard to do. I don't see any other reason.''

Couples threw out his back not too long after his Houston victory and didn't have another top 10 finish until October, a seven-month drought.

So far this year, he's been in the money in seven of the nine events he's entered, but has only one top 10, a tie for sixth at the Masters two weeks ago. He's 51st on the money list and tied for 79th in scoring average.

``I'm way off my golf game,'' he said. ``But that could change tomorrow.

``Last year was very sweet. Ten, 15 years ago, I would just look at a win as just playing well. But five years of not winning a tournament, that's a long time... It was weird to not win for that long.''

Vijay Singh, K.J. Choi, Jay Haas, Robert Allenby, Chris Riley and Leonard, all ranked in the top 30 in the world, are in the field for this week's tournament. Singh, Haas and Allenby are former Houston winners.

This year's event is the second at suburban Houston's Redstone Golf Club, where it was moved in 2003 after 18 years at The Tournament Players Course at The Woodlands, about 25 miles away.

It's scheduled to move again, in 2006, to a Rees Jones-designed course now under construction next to Redstone.

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