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2005 Season off to an unpredictable start

Everything fell into place for Stuart Appleby, even before he showed up on Maui and made a successful defense of his title in the Mercedes Championships.

His wife is in Australia expecting their first child, but he was assured the birth would not happen until he got home.

Unable to hit balls a week before the tournament because of nerve problems in his left leg, some stretching exercises made him fit enough to play.

And with the tournament up for grabs Sunday, Appleby got some unexpected help.

The 33-year-old Aussie captured the season-opener on the PGA Tour, playing the final 55 holes without a bogey and letting everyone else collapse down the stretch for a one-shot victory.

``You'd have to say it's slightly surprising,'' Appleby said.

The biggest shock was what happened behind him.

Vijay Singh was tied for the lead until hitting a tee shot he never found on No. 13 to make triple bogey.

Ernie Els looked like a shoo-in to force a playoff until his tee shot on the par-5 18th ricocheted off a cart path and vanished into trees and shrubs.

Tiger Woods couldn't make a birdie putt that mattered.

And when Jonathan Kaye messed up a chip on the final hole, Appleby wound up in a position he never could have imagined until the first PGA Tour event of the year was in the books -- a lei draped around his neck, the trophy in his hand and another sports car for his collection.

``I just had to keep my head down and do my thing,'' he said. ``I've never been a player that's had enough experience to run from that far behind. But it's nice to know that when the dice is rolling good, you just keep throwing.''

He threw down a 6-under 67 in the final round for a one-shot victory over Kaye, becoming the first player in 22 years to win back-to-back in the Mercedes Championships, and the only player at Kapalua to have a round over par and still win the tournament.

``You look at where I was after round one, you would not have put any money on me,'' he said.

Appleby finished at 21-under 271 and earned $1.06 million for his sixth career victory, assuring himself a trip back to Kapalua next year.

Kaye closed with a 71, while Woods (68) and Els (71) were two shots behind. Singh (74) and Stewart Cink, who made two bogeys over the final three holes for a 71, were another stroke behind with Adam Scott (65).

Appleby got into the mix by driving the 398-yard sixth hole -- downwind, with a steep hill over the final 100 yards down to the green -- to set up a 12-foot eagle putt. He added two tough birdies on the back nine, including a 25-footer on the 17th that gave him the outright lead for the first time all week.

Appleby wasn't even aware of his position. Having won last year, he knows that leads can change in a hurry.

``I just ran hard across the line and tried to get my nose in front,'' he said.

Nor did he have any idea what was going on behind him.

The final round was played in the toughest conditions all week. Two inches of rain overnight left the turf soggy, and the Kona wind from the opposite direction made the Plantation Course at Kapalua a beast.

Five players had at least a share of the lead at some point.

Singh, who had a one-shot lead going into the final round, made his first bogey of the year with a three-putt from 50 feet on No. 4 and was still tied until he stepped to the 13th tee and pulled his drive into the waist-high weeds. His next tee shot went into the rough, his wedge came up short and he missed a 5-footer to make triple bogey.

``I lost the tournament right there,'' Singh said. ``That took a lot out of me. You can't win them all.''

Woods, the only player to post all four rounds in the 60s at Kapalua, was never a serious factor because of his putting. He missed a dozen putts inside 12 feet all week, and Sunday was not much better. With one last chance to make a move, he missed a 5-footer on No. 13 and a 10-footer on the 16th.

``I probably had more opportunities within 15 feet than I've had in a long time,'' Woods said. ``I don't feel like I got anything out of my rounds.''

But the biggest surprise was Els.

The Big Easy, who set the course record at Kapalua two years ago, overcame some shaky putting in the middle of his round with a late charge -- first a delicate pitch to 3 feet for birdie on No. 15, then an 8-foot putt with 2 feet of break on the 16th to get to within one shot.

He could have reached the par-5 18th with a 2-iron, but only from the fairway. His drive wasn't even close.

``I wanted to hit it up the right side, get as much as I can out of the ball,'' Els said. ``Just hit it a little too far right. Got a bad break.''

Still, no one was kicking himself like Kaye. He chipped in for eagle on the ninth to take a share of the lead, had good chances on the back nine and a great opportunity from 50 yards in front of the 18th. But he left himself some 30 feet for birdie, and the putt never had a chance.

``I had a decision to either fly it to the hole or run it up there,'' Kaye said. ``I guess I chose the wrong one.''

Everything worked out just right for Appleby, and it only gets better from here. He booked a Sunday night flight for Melbourne, where his wife is scheduled to have the baby on Wednesday.


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