Appleby Closing in on Three-Peat

By Associated PressJanuary 7, 2006, 5:00 pm
04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- A two-shot lead at the Mercedes Championships means nothing to Stuart Appleby. Neither do his victories at Kapalua the last two years.
 
Even after birdies on three of his last six holes for a 3-under 70, matching the best score on another punishing, wind-swept day on west Maui, all Appleby could talk about Saturday were the shots he left out on the Plantation course and how he would have to bring his game up a notch.
 
Stuart Appleby
Stuart Appleby had four birdies and only one bogey in the third round.
'I'll have to knuckle down,' Appleby said. 'There's some good players behind me, and I'll have to play good golf.'
 
No one was conceding the season-opening tournament to Appleby, although his name atop the leaderboard is daunting. The Aussie is quickly becoming the King of Kapalua, and he has a chance Sunday to become the first player in nearly 50 years to capture the winners-only event three straight times.
 
'Every part of his game is very sound, very sharp,' U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell said after a 71 left him two shots behind and in the final group again with Appleby. 'He's going to be tough to beat tomorrow. But I believe I've got the tools to beat him.'
 
Campbell saw Saturday what he is up against.
 
If the pictures of past champions in the locker room were not enough -- two side-by-side of Appleby in the winner's cream blazer with a lei around his neck -- his golf in such demanding conditions should be a reminder.
 
On a course where the average score is 74.8 over three days, Appleby has dropped only two shots over his last 34 holes and looked very much in control by posting a 6-under 213 through three rounds.
 
'Winning two years in a row, pretty much being in control of this tournament most of the way, he's the guy to beat,' said Jim Furyk, a past winner at Kapalua who shot 72 and was three shots behind.
 
Only a half-dozen players were under par, and only one Kapalua rookie was in that mix. Lucas Glover needed some magic getting there, with a hole-in-one on the 203-yard eighth hole -- for a 70 to finish at 217.
 
Vijay Singh (74) and Sergio Garcia (73) each birdied the last hole to get to 218.
 
'If you just miss it, you're going to hit it way worse than you think,' Singh said. 'It was a grind. Putts like 3 or 4 feet it's like, 'Please, hit a good, solid stroke.''
 
Scoring has always been low at Kapalua since the tournament moved here in 1999, with the highest winning score coming in 2000 when Tiger Woods beat Ernie Els in a playoff after they finished at 16 under.
 
This looks more like a U.S. Open -- on the scoreboard and inside the ropes.
 
Not even the crashing surf below can put these guys at ease, as they battle wind that makes it difficult to stand still and greens that are firm and fast, making it tough to get the ball close to the hole.
 
The average score was 75.04, the second-toughest behind Friday's average of 75.5.
 
'I don't think anybody was expecting this kind of a battle the first week of the year,' Mark Calcavecchia said. 'I certainly wasn't. I'm exhausted.'
 
Calcavecchia made a 15-foot putt on the 18th for only the second eagle of the tournament, giving him a 73 to finish seven shots out of the lead.
 
The other eagle was even better.
 
Glover, 4 over after his first four holes of the year and struggling at the start of every round, hit a 5-iron from 203 yards that bounced twice and probably would have run through the green if not for hitting the pin and dropping straight down into the cup.
 
It was the first ace in the eight-year history at Kapalua, and he won a Mercedes-Benz worth $83,375.
 
'I don't know what happened,' Glover said. 'I was just trying to get it up on that top level. That's a tough hole with that wind. It lined up pretty good, then it was just a matter of distance, whether a wind hit it right or not.'
 
It put the 26-year-old into contention, just four shots behind on a course where anything can happen. Even so, Glover and everyone else in range of Appleby will need some help.
 
Appleby made seven straight pars to hold his position, then gave himself some separation on two holes. Dead into the wind on No. 13, he managed to keep his 9-iron below the cup and holed a 12-footer for birdie, then hit another great pitch on the par-5 15th to 6 feet for birdie.
 
His two-putt from off the green at No. 18 gave him his third straight round under par.
 
The bigger story was the guys who struggle to break 80. Jason Gore, the feel-good story of 2005 with his collapse at the U.S. Open and quick turnaround to earn a promotion to the PGA Tour, doesn't feel so great this week. He shot 81, leaving him at 22 over and still searching for his first round in the 70s.
 
Gore is among seven players who are double digits over par.
 
But it also shows who's on top of their games, with three major champions among those under par, and the two-time defending champion at the top.
 
The only other player to win the Tournament of Champions three straight times was Gene Littler in 1955-57 when it was played at Desert Inn at Las Vegas. The last player to win the same tournament three straight years was Tiger Woods at the Bay Hill Invitational (2000-04). Others who have done that include Tom Watson and Johnny Miller.
 
'That's a great list to be on,' Appleby said. 'I hope I'm not thinking about that tomorrow, just playing my game, and knowing my best is enough to be a three-peater.'
 
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