Victory Wave

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MAUI, Hawaii -- All it would have taken was one rogue wave. The swells were up, the rocks were hidden beneath the surface. And Stuart Appleby was surfing with his good Aussie mate, Adam Scott, just down the road from the Plantation Course where the Mercedes Championships would begin two days later.
 
They were in fast company on this brilliant Tuesday. Kelly Slater, the six-time world surfing champion, was showing them the sometimes violent ebbs and flows of his sport. It was Appleby's first time on a board. And he didn't know enough to be scared. Didn't know enough to understand how really bad he was at surfing. That was left for Scott to quantify, using a golf analogy.
 
'We were double bogeying every wave,' Scott said. And if one of those waves had crashed the wrong way or broken at the wrong moment, Appleby might never have made it to the first tee of a tournament he would dominate, even though the final count said he only beat the inexorable Vijay Singh by one shot.
 
'Appleby ate a lot of sand,' was the way another source would put it. But he lived to play another day.
 
The victory would mark the fourth time in his last six PGA Tour events the 32-year-old Appleby would finish in the top two. It would mark the third time in three tries he had won on the PGA Tour after sleeping on the lead Saturday night. The $1.06 million he received for shooting 22 under par at the Plantation Course would move him into the top 30 on the all-time money list.
 
And it would identify Appleby, after just one 2004 event, as the leading candidate for breakthrough player of the year. His swing is strong. It is simple. And at the Mercedes, he putted like he invented grain. He had also worked, he said, on his 'brain.' He had convinced himself that if he was hitting the ball well on the range, there was no reason he shouldn't be able to take that form to the golf course.
 
'Stuie's got the mindset now,' Scott said. 'He wants to go right to the top.'
 
Appleby can take a number on that goal. Singh will threaten Woods' stranglehold on the top spot in the world rankings before Appleby does. So will Ernie Els and Davis Love III. But it won't keep Appleby from trying. He entered the tournament ranked No. 14 in the official world golf rankings. He is rising with a bullet.
 
In 1997 Appleby played in his first major, The Masters. He hasn't missed a major since. His best finish was a T2 at the 02 Open Championship, losing to Ernie Els in a playoff at Muirfield. But he had failed to advance to the weekend in 15 of the other 27 majors he entered. He lost his wife, Renay, in a tragic car accident in 1998. And he suffered very publicly.
 
Now he is remarried. Time has helped the healing process. There is an angel on his shoulder. And the waves of bad fortune that threaten all golfers are wiping out somebody else's ride right now.
 
Weeks and months from now, much of what happened in this golf tournament will be forgotten. But Adam Scott and Kelly Slater won't any time soon. Scott's task will be to win a tournament between now and next year's event here. Then three of them can surf Maui again. The two Aussies might even par a wave. Or at least catch one.
 
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