Appleby grinds his way back to relevance on Tour

Stuart Appleby held the clubhouse lead at Barlcays on Sunday, but eventually finished T-2 and two shots back of winner Hunter Mahan.

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NORTON, Mass. – Sitting here in the warm, sultry, late-summer days of 2014, Stuart Appleby can look back and relish a stretch of time when there was so much consistently good with his golf game.

Oh, if he only had realized it at the time.

“I think when you’ve had the top echelon of whatever it is – business, life going your way, whatever it is – and then you don’t have it, you always look back and (wonder),” Appleby said. “I generally would say people don’t appreciate how good it was, because it just seems so easy.

“Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do? Isn’t this how it all works?”

He was young. He was talented. And when at the age of 25 he won the first of his nine PGA Tour tournaments, the 1997 Honda Classic, Appleby was off on a long and steady run of success. Starting with the 1997 Masters he would play in 52 consecutive major championships, the streak halted when he failed to qualify for Augusta in 2010.

If you think that was a blip on the radar, think again. It was the sign of things to come. As quickly and as steadily as golf had rewarded him, Appleby has rarely been asked out onto the biggest stages. Since 2010 he has played in just three of 20 major championships. What’s more, for a guy who used to be a fixture at the World Golf Championships – he played in each of the first 32, a stretch covering 1999-2009 – the last few years have shown him the other side of the pro-golf landscape, a place where the all-star games and no-cut tournaments aren’t part of the schedule.

It is not awful, of course, not with millions of dollars in purses and ample opportunity for career-enhancing tournaments. But the goal is to be in the majors and the WGCs, to sit down Jan. 1 and plan a schedule and stick to it. Told that Geoff Ogilvy once opined that when you were in that top echelon it was easy to stay there, but when you fell out, it was difficult to make it back in, Appleby nodded in agreement.

“Geoff’s right. When you’re out and you’re out with the geeks and the nerds out the back, you want to get back in with the cool guys.”

For a few seasons, Appleby has been on the outside looking in. The majors weren’t on his docket, nor were the WGCs, and when he looked at the birthday cake every May, another candle was burning. He had to face the hard truths of a professional athlete getting older while at the same time loving the time with his family.

“The sport doesn’t taste the same as what it used to, as it did as a 25- or 35-year old,” Appleby said.

But a crazy thing happened last Sunday to the now 43-year-old Aussie. He played better and better as the competition went on at The Barclays. From an opening 73 he shot 66, then 68, then in the fourth round he kept rolling in birdie putts until at 12 under he had the lead.

Stunning, but true, though there was no time to look at leaderboards and try to figure out what was going on. “I’ve got to try to go as far as I can and hopefully not run out of holes,” Appleby recalled telling himself, but he did run out of holes. From five birdies in six holes to start his back nine, Appleby finished par, par, par, then watched as his 65 and 12-under total finished two behind Hunter Mahan. Appleby had not won, but neither had he lost, not when his share of second place enabled him to push from 98th in the FedEx Cup standings to 19th.

Nineteenth. As in, well inside the top 30, which is the cutoff for the Tour Championship, a prize that brings with it a ticket to all of the next year's majors. He remembers those days and knows now that he never quite appreciated them, that he perhaps took them for granted.

“I certainly now know that when I was in the top (echelon), I look back and say, ‘Man, I was proud of it and all that,’ but I guess I expected it and perhaps that was part of the reason why I got it. It was normal to me.

“Like a 7-foot guy who dunks a ball. Well, you and I have never done it. He doesn’t appreciate it. He just thinks it’s easy. But if you chop him off by 2 feet, he’d say, ‘Wow, that’s different.’ "

August, and pushing forward in the playoffs? That’s different for Appleby, who played in seven of the first eight playoff events, but since 2009 has played in just seven of 21. That he is guaranteed a spot in each of the first three playoffs this year and is in good position to make all four is hugely satisfying to the Aussie.

“I remember hearing players saying, ‘It’s easy for you; you’re in the elite.’ Now I say, ‘I hear you guys.’ But my answer back then was, ‘Play better.’ My answer now not being in them is still, 'Play better.' ”

It has worked for Appleby.

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