Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2011

Appleby Is Back Where He Knows He Belongs

On the breezy northwest corner of Maui, the 2011 PGA Tour season has begun. It’s the Tournament of Champions, this year named after first-year sponsor Hyundai. The first event of every year is a limited field tournament, open only to winners of a Tour event during the previous season. It’s sort of a “rich get richer” bonus for those players. They get to spend a week in Hawaii, and more likely two. Most of the players in this field will hang around for the Sony Open next week in Honolulu. Because of the limited field, they are rewarded for their past triumph with the chance to get a leg up on this year’s money list. The winner Sunday will pocket more than $1.1 million, and the “poor” guy who finishes dead last in a tournament without a 36-hole cut will earn more than $70,000.

Despite all those inducements, the 34 golfers teeing it up today do not represent the entire field of 2010 PGA Tour winners. World #1 Lee Westwood, who won the St. Jude Classic last June, has opted to stay home in chilly England. Second-ranked Tiger Woods isn’t eligible for this field, having failed to post a win last year. But it’s really no matter; the most famous golfer in the world never starts his PGA Tour season until the competition moves on to the West Coast. The same is true for defending Masters champion and world #4 Phil Mickelson.

Of course Westwood won the Nedbank World Challenge in South Africa last month. That same week Woods was finishing second at his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge in California. He had just returned to the U.S. after spending November flying through the South Pacific, playing at three tournaments in Asia and Australia. And Mickelson’s last two appearances were at one of those same events, in Shanghai, followed the next week by a tournament in Singapore. The reality is that the game has become so rich and so global that a tournament (or two) in Hawaii that doesn’t offer appearance money (the PGA Tour forbids it), can look to the premiere players in the world less and less appealing and more and more like a very long plane ride.

Despite this the Tournament of Champions’ field is hardly second-rate, given that everyone in it has cashed at least one very large check in the past twelve months. PGA Tour Player of the Year Jim Furyk is walking the hilly Plantation Course, as is 3-time major winner Ernie Els. Seven of the top ten finishers on last year’s money list are playing at Kapalua. But because every golf season produces some unexpected victors, there are always some unexpected stories at this tournament. This year, perhaps the most unexpected of all is Stuart Appleby’s.

The 39-year old Appleby was born in the small town of Cohuna, in the rural interior of Victoria, Australia. He was raised on a dairy farm, a less than obvious breeding ground for a future professional golfer. But he found the game early on, and practiced hitting balls from field to field after his daily chores were done. He turned pro at age 21, playing first on the PGA Tour of Australasia. In 1995 he moved on to the Nationwide Tour, where he won his very first start at the Monterey Open. By season’s end he had added another victory and qualified for the big show by finishing fifth on the developmental tour’s money list.

PGA Tour success was not long in coming for Appleby. He won the 1997 Honda Classic, and followed that a year later with victory at the Kemper Open. That victory moved the 27-year old up to 35th in the World Golf Rankings.

But it was only one month later when Appleby was brought low by enormous personal tragedy. He and his wife Renay were unloading luggage from a taxi at London’s Waterloo Station after the golfer had missed the cut at that year’s Open Championship. Married since 1992, they were bound for Paris, and a planned second honeymoon. Following that interlude Appleby was scheduled to play in the Scandinavian Masters. After that they were to return to the U.S., where Renay was overseeing renovations to the home they had recently purchased in the exclusive community of Isleworth, Florida; a purchase made possible by Stuart’s early PGA Tour success. Suddenly a car slipped into reverse, crushing Renay between it and the car behind. The death of the vivacious young woman stunned the Tour, and left Appleby bereft.

In time of course, he returned to the game; as almost everyone dealing with grief eventually returns to that which is familiar. And in time he would win again, a total of six more times by the spring of 2006, when he made the Shell Houston Open his 8th PGA Tour career victory. By that time Appleby had remarried, in 2002, and had four children with his second wife, Ashley. He was also serving as surrogate parent to the children of Payne Stewart, his next door neighbor at Isleworth who had been killed in a plane crash the year after Renay’s death.

Then the game that had for years been so easy started to get hard. Even weekend golfers have experienced the inexplicable loss of their meager talents. How much more frustrating it must be when it happens to one of the leading players in the world. First the winning stopped. Then at times Appleby’s play became just plain bad. At the 2007 Masters, he held the lead through 54 holes, only to shoot 75 on Sunday and finish tied for seventh. He went on to miss the cut in more than one-third of the 24 events he played that year. While he improved somewhat in 2008, he regressed in 2009, again missing nine cuts while recording just one top ten finish.

It was then that Appleby decided that at not yet forty years old, he was too young to accept that PGA Tour success was only in his past. While sticking with Steve Bann, his life-long swing coach, he also sought out golf psychologist Dr. Gio Viliante for help with the crucial mental aspects of the game at its highest level. In addition, he changed his putting grip, opting for the increasingly popular left hand low approach.

For all that, 2010 did not begin auspiciously. He missed cut after cut in the early part of the Tour’s schedule. Hope glimmered in April when he finished 8th at the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town, then 6th a week later at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. But then he missed the cut in his next four events.

It was then that Appleby came to a remarkably unconventional decision. On the modern PGA Tour, playing four tournaments in a row is considered heavy lifting. So much so that the elite players successfully lobbied the Tour to build in an off week to the season ending four event FedEx Cup playoffs. But Appleby decided that he was still capable of winning, and he was going to play until he did.

Finally, in his 11th consecutive tournament, Appleby broke through and then some. He not only won the Greenbrier Classic, he did so by shooting only the fifth 59 in PGA Tour history on the final day of the tournament. The victory not only guaranteed Appleby’s place in this week’s field, it also gave him a 2-year exemption on the Tour and fattened his bank account by more than $1 million. Along with his play over the rest of the season, it also won him the Comeback Player of the Year Award, voted at season’s end by his fellow pros.

In interviews Appleby often seems reticent and reserved. No doubt that comes partly from knowing in ways both personal and professional how fleeting success can be. But no one should mistake that reserve for a lack of confidence or determination. He proved that over 11 long weeks last year. As he tees it up this week at Kapalua, once again a champion, the one certainty is that Stuart Appleby absolutely believes he’s going to win again. And again.

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