2006: Appleby finds new paradise

In something of a tradition – like azaleas blooming in Augusta each April and the swallows returning to Capistrano – Stuart Appleby has departed his personal paradise in Hawaii each January with the Mercedes Championship trophy in tow and ambitious designs for the coming year.

But in each of the last two seasons, to his grand disappointment, those big plans never really materialized. This January, when Appleby picked up his third Mercedes for his expanded garage in Orlando, Fla., he vowed everything would be different. He would build on his victory.

At the Shell Houston Open April 23, he not only won again, but he made it look rather easy.

Appleby’s closing 5-under 67 on the new Tournament Course at Redstone gave the soon-to-be 35-year-old (his birthday is May 1) another solid block in the foundation as he tries to build 2006 into a season to remember. He registered a whopping six-stroke victory over Bob Estes, and the triumph put him in heady company with two other multiple winners this season: world No. 1 Tiger Woods and world No. 2 Phil Mickelson.

The victory was Appleby’s eighth on Tour (his second in Houston), and marked the first time he has collected more than one Tour victory in a season.

Lately, Appleby was growing increasingly frustrated that he seemingly couldn’t win anywhere but Kapalua.

“There needed to be another dose of that throughout the year, and there hadn’t been,” he said. “Winning now, twice, puts that emotional feeling at a higher level. Winning twice on the Tour in a year is a good achievement for me.

“Other players are probably thinking four or five, and other guys are thinking if they don’t win six it’s a bad year. I think winning once or twice proves to you that what you’re doing works, and it can work more than once every blue moon.”

Or every Mercedes, so to speak.

Appleby went wire-to-wire at Redstone, finishing at 19-under 269, matching the tournament’s largest margin of victory. Estes, a Texas native who heard more than his share of “Hook ’em Horns” over the course of the week – closed with a 69 to finish second. Steve Stricker (66), who began this season with limited status after finishing 162nd in earnings in 2005, was alone in third.

Just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming down the stretch, Appleby turned to longtime caddie Joe Damiano with two holes left and asked where he stood. “I knew where I was,” Appleby said, “I just wanted to hear it from his lips.”

Appleby earned $990,000 for the victory and moved to fourth on this year’s earnings list. He also gave Australia back-to-back winners on the heels of Aaron Baddeley winning at Harbour Town April 16. Two other Aussies – Geoff Ogilvy (WGC-Match Play) and Rod Pampling (Bay Hill Invitational) – have won on Tour this season.

By the time Appleby reached the 13th hole Sunday, the only question was whether he’d break the tournament scoring record of 22 under set by Vijay Singh in 2002. Appleby reached the par 5 in two shots en route to a birdie, then fell back to 19 under with a bogey on 14. He made routine pars the rest of the way – though ripping driver-pitching wedge to the green at the 488-yard finishing hole hardly can be classified as routine.

Houston will move to the week before the Masters in 2007, a jump tournament organizers hope will strengthen the field and perhaps lure more international stars.

Organizers also may have to sell more players on the 7,457-yard Tournament Course, which got mixed reviews in its debut. The event moved after three years at Redstone’s Jacobsen/Hardy course across the street.

Singh, who won the last two years at the other course, didn’t like the new one as much. Singh (T-36) extended his winless streak to 18 events, his longest drought since 2002. That year, he snapped a 50-tournament dry spell by winning – you guessed it – the Houston Open.

“The golf course did not grow on me,” said Singh,

who finished at 2 under after a closing 71. “Every hole is pretty similar. It’s not a bad golf course – I just prefer the other one.”

It’s a safe bet that Appleby will be back next year, regardless of where the event falls on the schedule.

“I know this course well now,” he said, “and hopefully I can get a love affair like I had at Kapalua.”

He certainly had a great first date.

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