Talk about baby gifts. The newborns of Princess Grace, Princess Di or Royal Princess Whomever didn’t get a haul like this.
We speak, of course, about the expected baby of Mercedes Championships repeat winner Stuart Appleby and wife Ashley. The child was due by Caesarean section Jan. 12 in Melbourne, Australia. A few days prior, the presents came pouring in from various millionaires on the west coast of Maui.
First, Tiger Woods, who finished two shots behind despite excellent ball-striking with a revamped swing, had so much trouble on the Kapalua Plantation Course’s slow, grainy greens that he cracked, “I think I had 300 putts this week.” His total would include the six inside of 8 feet he missed in the second round. The only player to shoot four rounds in the 60s, Woods led in approach shot accuracy but was 29th out of 31 in distance of putts made.
“I made a couple of 2-footers,” he deadpanned.
Then co-leader Vijay Singh, the world’s top-ranked player, hooked a drive out of play, re-teed and triple-bogeyed the 13th hole en route to a final-round 74. This from a man who didn’t even make a bogey the first 57 holes.
“One drive really got me,” said Singh, who had converted his last 11 54-hole leads into victories. “I made a triple bogey coming in and that was it. You can’t win them all.”
Then Stewart Cink bogeyed 16 – dropping him from a share of the lead – and the par-5 closer, both because of inaccurate second shots.
“You come off a chance to win and you don’t win, you feel like a loser,” Cink said, before adding he didn’t feel like a loser because he shot 18 under par.
Then world No. 3 Ernie Els, needing a closing birdie to force a playoff, not only missed the
100-yard-wide 18th fairway off the tee, his drive hit a cart path on the far right and bounced out of bounds. He re-teed and made 6.
“I wanted to hit it down the right side to get as much run as I could,” Els said. “I just hit it too far right and it hit the path. I think I got a bad break.”
Then spunky Jonathan Kaye, also needing a closing birdie to tie Appleby, hit a shot like a 12-handicapper might. Trying to carry a ridge with a sand wedge, he left a pitch shot from 50 yards out some 45 feet short of the pin and missed the tying putt.
“I had to decide whether to fly it in or run it up,” said Kaye, first in putting and second on the scoreboard despite waking up the morning of the third round with a back so sore he couldn’t bend over. “I guess I chose wrong. . . . If I had to do it over, I’d fly it all the way to the hole. The worst you’d have then is 8 feet. That’s better than 45 feet.”
It’s not everyday a handful or so of the world’s best players go south on the same afternoon, especially at a birdiefest. Never mind that gusty Kono winds toughened the Plantation. If these guys are good, then this day was shocking.
“Everybody has little hiccups at the start of the year,” Appleby said in defense of his Tour brethren.
Then there was the happy expectant father and beneficiary. His year almost didn’t get started, period. The week before the event and again after the first round, the last thing he was expecting was another victory.
Troubled by an inflamed nerve in his back and hip the prior week in Australia, Appleby couldn’t hit any shots. “No way I could play golf,” he said. He told his trainer, Vern McMillan, that he didn’t think he’d even go to Hawaii. But stretching on consecutive days got him pain-free and functional again.
Nor did he look like trophy-hoisting material after shooting 1-over-par 74 in the first round. He beat only Ryan Palmer in the 31-man field and trailed Singh, who led after each of the first three rounds, by eight strokes.
“In racing terms, I stumbled out of the gate,” said Appleby, the tournament’s only winner since 1983 to shoot an over-par round. “You could have gotten long odds on me then. I wasn’t even on the radar.”
But just about everything that could go right did.
He birdied half the golf course and shot a second-round 64.
He didn’t make a bogey on the last 55 holes, a personal best. “I don’t know how I did that,” Appleby said.
He finally caught the leader in the final round when he drove the green on the par-4 sixth hole – a downhill, downwind blast of about 375 yards – and made a 12-footer for eagle 2. That tied him for the lead temporarily at 19 under.
He pulled within one of Kaye with a 15-foot birdie putt at 12, ended up in a four-way tie at 20 under when Kaye bogeyed the short 12th and went ahead to stay with a 21-foot birdie putt at 17.
“I had a feeling,” he said of the birdie that locked up his sixth Tour victory.
His 21-under 74-64-66-67–271 made for a nice, seven-digit baby gift: $1,060,000. That’ll buy a few diapers. Said annuity was fueled by both striking and sinking. He missed only four greens in regulation the last three rounds, and he was second in distance of total putts made and average putts per round.
“Very similar to a year ago,” he said.
Except for one thing. The baby part.
“It’s sort of a fairy tale right now,” Appleby said. “I’ve won tournaments before, but I’m about to experience something I’ve never done. There will be a big tear shed, I’m sure.”