By Jeff Babineau
The PGA Tour has its own running version of “Groundhog Day,” starring Stuart Appleby as Bill Murray’s Phil Connors. Here’s the script: Appleby arrives at Kapalua for the season-opening Mercedes Championships, enjoys a little sun, plays as if he owns the Plantation Course and bolts with more than a $1 million and keys to a new sports car.
It happens over and over and over again.
After blistering the golf course in 2004-05 in a combined 43 under par, Appleby this time weathered four days of winds gusting to 30 mph and new, quicker Ultradwarf TifEagle greens. His quest to three-peat was made considerably harder by old friend Vijay Singh, who closed with the week’s low round of 7-under 66 to extend Appleby to an extra hole.
But in the end, there was the easygoing Aussie, posing with the trophy once more, becoming the first player in five decades to capture this winners-only gathering three consecutive years. Gene Littler pulled off the hat trick in 1955-57, when the tournament was staged in Las Vegas. As Yogi Berra might say, it was deja vu all over again.
Appleby said his first victory at the Mercedes was “great,” the second “awesome” and this one – he apologized for
the English – “more awesomer.” He’s been seen kissing the Mercedes trophy so often his wife Ashley, pregnant with the couple’s second child, might start to get jealous.
The 34-year-old Appleby collected his seventh PGA Tour victory on his 73rd hole, nearly holing his third shot from a bunker behind the green at the 663-yard 18th. Singh, who was 15 yards past the long-hitting Appleby off the tee, watched his long iron approach hit softly and stay short, then coaxed his slippery, sliding first putt from more than 90 feet to 9 feet. But the birdie putt started right and stayed there, leaving Appleby only a tap-in for the triumph. The players had tied after 72 holes of regulation at 8-under 284.
“I’m a little disappointed,” said Singh, who declined to appear in the interview room. It was his fifth consecutive top-5 finish at Mercedes without a victory. “But there’s always next week.”
Jim Furyk, who has a home at Kapalua, shot four 72s and finished third, two shots better than Michael Campbell (who closed with 75) and Vaughn Taylor. Only six players in the windswept field of 28 finished under par; a year ago, only one player out of 31 failed to break par.
For Appleby, the road ahead is one he’d like to travel a bit more adeptly than he has the last two years. Both times Appleby, a big car buff, failed to capitalize on his blazing first act, finishing 13th and 23rd, respectively, in Tour earnings.
A brief stint inside the top 10 of the World Ranking (he entered last week’s Mercedes ranked 30th) has whet his appetite to return there, to establish himself in the upper echelon of the game’s brightest stars. When his putting is in place, as it was on the huge, rolling Plantation greens – he led the field with 29.5 putts per round – he can be a real force.
Everything else about his game seems in place.
“I really think he could have been a top-10 player for a long time,” said caddie Joe Damiano, who has been on Appleby’s bag for nearly eight years. “There have been some intangibles that were holding him back, because his golf is as good as anybody’s. He drives the ball as well as anyone in the world. His ballstriking is unbelievable.
Little mistakes we used to make that cost us shots, cost us tournaments, that has to go away. And I really think that’s what he’s leaning toward right now. This could be the breakout year.”
Said Appleby, “I know it will happen. . . . This obviously is great food for thought, this tournament. It gives me a lot of good feelings, vibes, whatever you want to call them. And that’s really what I’ve got to take to every tournament.”
Sunday morning, a stranger asked Appleby if he’d purchased property at Kapalua. Upon second thought, doesn’t he own the golf course? Shortly before the sun set, as Appleby cradled the silver trophy in one arm and gripped the keys to his third Mercedes in his free hand,
he offered one last salute to the crowd gathered around the 18th green.
“Thanks everybody,” he said. “I look for a deja vu effort here next year.”