HONOLULU – Stuart Appleby knows as well as anyone that winning can happen when you least expect it.
He was playing his 11th straight week without so much as a top 10 last year when he shot 59 in the final round to win The Greenbrier. He was playing so poorly in the Australian Masters that he didn’t think he would even make the cut. He shot 65 the last day to win.
“Good form is what you need to have, ultimately, throughout a career,” he said Friday. “But wins can come from the strangest places. That’s the exciting part of the game.”
How about from a hotel balcony?
Appleby was on the practice range for about 20 minutes Wednesday at the Sony Open before rain chased him indoors and washed out the pro-am. The next day, the opening round was called off because of a water-logged Waialae Country Club. There was nowhere to play, so Appleby went out to his balcony for 20 minutes to swing his sand wedge.
“Just sat there with a glove on and hit – well, imaginary balls – and working on my technique and getting a feel for it,” he said. “That was really my whole practice right there. And I walked about 20 feet back in the door, back into my room.”
It paid off when the first round finally got under way, even if it took some time.
He had no bogeys on his card, yet only one birdie, when he chipped in from in front of the 12th green. He then made a 10-foot birdie on the 13th, the toughest hole on the course. A good round got even better when Appleby holed out from 163 yards with a 5-iron on the 16th hole, and rammed in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 17th.
He finished with a 6-under 64, giving him a one-shot lead over nine players, ranging from Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose to a pair of PGA Tour rookies in Nate Smith and Ben Martin.
The conditions were so soft, and with only a moderate breeze, that 65 players in the 144-man field managed to break par. The Sony Open is the first full-field event of the year, although it wasn’t quite big enough for Richard S. Johnson. He tried to Monday qualify, moved up the alternate list as the week went on and was the first alternate in the morning.
What were his chances as the No. 1 alternate? “Better than No. 2,” he said.
Alas, he left Hawaii without a chance to attack the course, as so many did.
Appleby shot a 30 on the back nine for his best start in 10 years at the Sony Open. Steve Marino also had a 30 on the back nine, with birdies on four of the last five holes to join the group at 65.
Appleby is among 23 players at Waialae who played the Tournament of Champions last week on Maui, so he had a chance to shake off some rust, what little was left from playing back home.
Kuchar and Rose also were at Kapalua.
“I definitely think the guys that played on Maui have an advantage,” Kuchar said. “You never know how you’re going to do, and just by practicing and hitting balls at home, it’s different than actually grinding out 3- and 4-footers that actually mean something. And particularly with the rain delay, I think we’re a little bit fresher.”
So how to explain Martin?
Fresh out of Clemson, after breezing through Q-school, he played a practice round Monday at Waialae. Martin had a photo shoot with one of his sponsors Tuesday, and never got to the course Wednesday because of the rain. Ditto for Thursday.
“I hadn’t hit a golf shot in three days,” he said.
He hit most of them quite well in the opening round. Five of his birdies were from inside 8 feet, and two others came on the par 5s that he reached in two. It helped to have experience on the bag. Martin sent his caddie to California to study the four courses used in the Bob Hope Classic, and he used Frank Williams, the longtime caddie for Stewart Cink, who was coming to Hawaii on vacation.
Rose opened with a 75 last week and played well from there, finishing in a tie for 12th.
“I didn’t panic, just really realized that it was a good week to knock off some rust and start growing some good habits,” he said. “And the week kind of evolved and I got better every day. It was nice to carry that on into this week.”
This week figures to be different. Because an entire round was washed out, the plan is to play the second round on Saturday, followed by a 36-hole marathon Sunday.
Some players did well to rally. Vijay Singh, playing for only the second time in the last four months, was 4 over through six holes. He birdied four of his last six for a 70. And then there was Charles Warren, who got into the Sony Open through his top-10 finish at Disney in the final tournament of the year. Warren birdied his last hole at Disney, which not only put him in Honolulu to start the year, but got him inside the top 150 on the money list to give him at least conditional status.
He promptly made three straight bogeys to start his season and was 4 over through six holes. It took him until the eighth to take honors from 67-year-old Dave Eichelberger, playing as local club pro for winning the Aloha Section. But Warren turned it around by playing 5 under over his last 10 holes for a 69. Eichelberger had a 76.