HUMBLE, Texas, April 27 (UPI) -- One of golf's most popular players won for the first time in five years Sunday at the Houston Open and a potential superstar finally earned his way onto the PGA Tour.
Fred Couples, who at the age of 43 was encouraged by his wife this year to re-dedicate himself to his sport, birdied four of the last five holes to shoot a closing-round 67 and capture the 15th tour victory of his career by four shots.
Couples was so overcome by emotion that he could not conduct a post-round television interview.
Hank Kuehne, meanwhile, completed a long and often difficult journey by ensuring his place on golf's biggest stage. He shot a 6-under 66 at the Redstone Golf Club to share second place with Stuart Appleby and Mark Calcavecchia.
The $336,000 Kuehne won gave him enough in earnings this year to qualify under a special PGA Tour exemption that rewards excellent play by a non-tour member.
Couples, winner of the 1992 Masters when he was the world's No. 1-ranked player, had not tasted victory since the 1998 Memorial.
In 2001, he fell to 131st on the tour's money list and said then that if he did not turn his game around, he would strongly consider retiring from the sport.
With the help of famed instructor Butch Harmon, Couples finally began to return to a form that gave him a chance to compete and coming into this tournament ?- played in the city where he went to college ?- he had finished in the top 15 four straight times.
He led or shared the lead after each of the first three rounds, but fell out of the lead Sunday with a double bogey at the seventh hole and a bogey at the 10th.
But his iron play suddenly became all but perfect and he birdied the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to regain control. Couples finished off the round with a 12-foot birdie to give him a 72-hole total of 21-under 267.
Moments after holing that putt, Couples began an interview on television. But it did not last long.
"I want to thank my wife and Butch Harmon," Couples said before he broke into an uncontrollable sob. He covered his face with his visor and walked away.
After the trophy presentation, Couples was able to joke about letting his emotions get the best of him.
"I am always emotional when nice things happen to nice people," he said. "I haven't played really well in five years, and I worked hard on my game, and it meshed.
"And to win, it's a great bonus for (caddie) Joey and myself and my wife and his family, but I have a lot of people to thank.
"That's kind of what was going through my mind (in the television interview). Didn't get it out very well."
The win was worth $810,000, which pushed Couples into the top 10 on the money list with more than $1.37 million. He has not finished a season higher than 47th since 1998, when he was ninth.
Couples' victory continued a trend this year in which established and veteran players have dominated. Davis Love III, Mike Weir and Tiger Woods -? none of whom played this week -? have all won three times and Ernie Els has two victories to his credit.
Last year, there were a record 18 first-time winners on the PGA Tour.
Kuehne, however, emerged as a first-time champion in waiting. The 1998 U.S. Amateur titleholder, who has overcome alcohol abuse problems as well as major arm surgery, has been considered one of the best players in the world not participating on a major tour. His mammoth drives outdistance those of Tiger Woods.
He failed to earn his tour card at the Qualifying Tournament last winter after leading the money list on the Canadian Tour.
Because he has not been a PGA Tour member, he has been allowed to accept only eight invitations a year from tournament sponsors.
One of those came earlier this month in Atlanta, where he had the best week of his life and tied for third, winning $208,000.
The tour has an exemption that allows a player to accept as many invitations as he wants if he can match the amount won by the 150th player on the money list from the prevous year. In this case, that would be $356,657.
Kuehne, who set the course record with a 64 Friday to grab a share of the lead, easily passed that figure Sunday. Not only can Kuehne accept all the invitations he wishes this year, with his total earnings to date this season of $553,500, he is already virtually guaranteed of being in the top 125 at the end of 2003.
That will earn him full exempt status for 2004.
"I played fantastic today," said Kuehne, whose only blemish Sunday came in the form of a bogey on the final hole that wound up costing him $150,000. "My goal was to be in the top 10 today. If I got going and had a chance to win, that would be great."
"From the time he teed it up to the time he holed out to win the tournament, that's the best I have ever seen Fred play," said Calcavecchia, who holds the PGA Tour scoring record for a 72-hole event.
Calcavecchia supplied some comic relief at the 17th hole, where his approach landed on the edge of a pond off the front ride side of the green. He rolled up his pants and stepped into the water before chipping onto the putting surface.
"I couldn't get my feet out of the muck," he said. "It was pretty interesting stuff."