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Stuart Appleby happy being "King of Kapalua"

With the champion's lei draped around his neck, Stuart Appleby didn't have to say a word to size up his feelings about his reign at Kapalua.

He cradled the silver trophy from the winners-only Mercedes Championships in one hand, and with the other held up three fingers to signify his three straight years of starting the PGA Tour season with a victory. Then, he held out his thumb and pinkie, the Hawaiian sign that everything is cool.

"King of Kapalua? Yeah, that sounds good," he said after a playoff victory over Vijay Singh.

But for the final hour of another demanding, wind-swept day on the Plantation course, Appleby felt as if he was being invaded. He had no idea anyone was capable of a low score at Kapalua, especially since no one had broken 70 since the trade winds began raging off the coast of Maui on Friday.

So imagine his surprise when he and his caddie, Joe Damiano, saw a leaderboard behind the 15th green that had Vijay Singh on his way to a 7-under 66, nine shots better than the course average Sunday in the final round.

"I have no clue how he did it," said Appleby, who had to birdie two of the last four holes for a 71. "Joe said on the 15th green, 'This is our party. He's not invited.' And I thought, 'You're right, Joe. I can't change his scorecard, but he can't do this. We've got to find a way. This is our tournament."'

It started with a curling, downhill 6-foot par putt on the 16th that kept Appleby in the game. One shot behind on the par-5 18th, Appleby came up short of the green, then hit a 150-foot pitch that caught the slope perfectly and stopped 4 feet away to force the third playoff in eight years the tournament has been at Kapalua.

Appleby never thought he was going to lose, but he knew the odds.

"Against Vijay ... he was obviously the hottest player by far," he said.

Appleby hit a 3-iron that hit the green, ran over the back and into a bunker. Singh got a bad break when his approach landed softly in front of the green and stayed put, leaving him 100 feet away. His putt was 9 feet short.

After the Aussie's great bunker shot, Singh's birdie putt stayed right of the cup the whole way, and Appleby tapped in for his seventh career victory, three at Kapalua.

He moved into elite company in the process. The only other player to capture this event three times was Gene Littler from 1955-57, when it was played at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Appleby also became the 15th player to win the same tournament three straight times.

"I'm short of words," he said. "First time, great. Second time, awesome. Third time -- it's the wrong English -- but more awesomer."

Singh was even shorter on words. He refused to come into the media center for comment.

His play spoke volumes, starting with an approach into 2 feet for an eagle on the fifth hole that sent him to a 32 on the front nine, and a bunker shot from 50 yards away in the 12th fairway with just enough spin to check and roll to within 4 inches of the cup.

When Appleby missed a 4-foot par putt on the 11th hole, he fell into a three-way tie with Singh and U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell at 6 under.

Campbell disappeared quickly and quietly, hitting his tee shot on the next hole into knee-high native grasses, never finding it and making double bogey. He shot 41 on the back for a 75 and tied for fourth. Appleby nearly joined him, three-putting the 13th to fall out of the lead for the first time since Friday.

Two groups ahead, Singh chipped to 4 feet for birdie on the par-5 15th, then built a two-shot lead when his wedge to the 16th came to rest 3 feet behind the hole.

"Vijay was a little bit out of the radar," Appleby said. "But that score was phenomenal."

Ultimately, it wasn't enough.

"He had a great run across the line," Appleby said. "I guess I had enough to just squeeze it out, but it had to be done in a playoff versus a one-shot victory like before."

Appleby earned $1.08 million and got the keys to a Mercedez-Benz sports car that goes to the winner. His garage in Orlando, Fla., is getting full.

The next step is to bring his game to a higher level throughout the year.

Appleby has not won again the previous two years after leaving Maui, although last year he raced home to Australia to be with his wife as she gave birth to Ella, who was in her mother's arms on the 18th when Appleby won.

Jim Furyk shot 72 all four days and finished third, while Vaughn Taylor made steady improvement -- 74-73-72-71 -- and joined Campbell in a tie for fourth.

But this tournament belongs to Appleby.

He heard on more than one occasion this week that he should have bought property at Kapalua if he knew he was going to win so often. But one man in the hotel lobby Sunday morning said something that stuck with him.

"The guy said, `You don't need to buy property. You own the golf course,"' Appleby said. "I thought that was cool."

January 9, 2006

 




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