AKRON, Ohio – Last year on the PGA Tour, you needed a lantern and search party to find him, particularly on weekends. To see his statistics, you needed a scroll bar and some patience. Far down the lists, he ranked 162nd in putting average, 150th in greens in regulation, 147th in scoring, 142nd in driving accuracy and, after living in the top 25 for years, 137th in earnings.
This March, a day after experimenting with left-hand-low putting, he told me, “I’m trying to find confidence with something. It’s like a snake. You try to befriend it, but you never know.”
No, you don’t. In golf, you never do. Just look at the rise, fall and rise of Stuart Appleby.
Considering the abyss he so impressively climbed out of, Appleby’s closing 59 that clinched victory Sunday at the inaugural Greenbrier Classic ranks as one of the more remarkable feats I’ve seen in golf. Check those numbers in the first paragraph. They don’t give the impression 59 was lurking around any corner.
Yes, the conditions were ideal – soft greens and no wind. But so much had been swirling inside of Appleby in the months before he became the fifth person in Tour history – and second in a month – to shoot 59.
Making the accomplishment more amazing, Appleby was hardly what you’d call fresh; he was playing for the 11th week in a row, an abnormally long streak that he started with four consecutive missed cuts. Those misses came after he failed to qualify for the weekend in six of his first 10 starts of 2010.
Appleby’s story is one of belief. One can take things for granted as he scales and stands on a mountain. Getting back there is a greater challenge. It requires remembering and forgetting all at the same time.
Mainly it calls for belief. As for Appleby, he saw a flicker and seized on it.
“When I was feeling like it was all very difficult and wondering who I was as a player before and how did I get to that level and then how did I get to a much lower level, I knew there was enough good things there to build that person back,” he said here at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, in a city where he met his wife, Ashley, on a blind date 10 years ago.
So he analyzed things and set a goal: Find enough form to get back into the top 30. Now he’s there. At the moment, thanks to a magical Sunday, he’s 24th in Tour earnings and FedEx Cup points. That’s a far cry from his world ranking entering last week – 159th.
“It was a test of will, a test of getting out of a hole, fighting out of it,” he said. “I just had to refocus.”
Now he needs to find a way to stay alert. This is his 12th straight week. Then comes next week’s PGA Championship. Then the FedEx Cup playoffs.
But a 59 tends to perk up a person. “Mentally a pep-up,” he called it. A launching pad, too, perhaps. “I’m feeling more excited about finishing off the year,” he said.
Appleby’s plight is the latest evidence that you’re as good as you think you are. It has been said the game is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is mental.
“Mental, yeah,” he said when asked the key to his climb. “I just had to be a bit aware of my tension levels. When you start pushing, you start getting more tense. You don’t tend to be aware of those levels when you’re tense. You’re just going in a circle and chasing your tail. Mentally, I had to work hard on just staying focused, knowing that if I’m in a slump, the only way to go is up. I put it mostly down to mental adjustments and work.”
Less tension in his arms led to a better swing. Left-hand-low putting helped, as well. The 59 is the best boost.
“I’ve got to use this to fuel on,” the 39-year-old said.
Others probably will, as well. This is the season of going low like never before. Before this year, the only time a 59 and a 60 were shot in the same Tour season was 1999, when David Duval shot 59 and Tommy Armour III 60. Last month at the John Deere, Paul Goydos (59) and Steve Stricker (60) turned the trick in the same round. And last week, Appleby and J.B. Holmes (60 in Round 3) were just the second duo to shoot those scores in the same event.
“What I’d really like to take from it is what I did well and how I thought and what I felt,” Appleby said. “That’s really what created an opportunity for me Sunday, and I know that will give me an opportunity when the tournament develops every week. Those are the things I need to be thinking of.”
The 11th international player to win on Tour in the past 15 weeks, Appleby was asked whether confidence or good shots come first.
We’re back to mental toughness.
“You need to practice with your confidence,” he said. “You need to develop that on the range. You need to have that on the range, and then you carry that to the course and you make it valid from there. You don’t try and find it on the golf course.
“You’ll never find anything on a golf course.”
What he kept finding Sunday was the hole. He made 10 putts of 7 feet or longer, including seven from 10 feet or more.
We’re back to confidence.
“I just felt like every time I was going to hit the putt, it was going to be a good one,” Appleby said. “And every time I looked up, it was the right one.”
Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.