Appleby claims third straight Mercedes Championship
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Stuart Appleby thought he was cruising to a third straight victory in the Mercedes Championships when a glance at the leaderboard behind the 15th green Sunday gave him quite a shock.
There was Vijay Singh, one shot ahead with the kind of round no one thought possible at wind-blown Kapalua.
"I had no clue how he did that," Appleby said. "I said to myself, 'I can't lose this tournament.'"
He had to work extra hard to join some elite company, making two birdies on the last four holes to force a playoff, then beating Singh on the first extra hole with a bunker shot from behind the green that tickled the rim of the cup and left him a 2-foot putt, the most nervous he felt all day.
Singh, whose 7-under 66 was nine shots better than the average score in the final round, left a 100-foot putt about 9 feet short on the par-5 18th in a playoff, then missed the birdie putt to the right. Appleby holed his putt to join Gene Littler (1955-57) as the only players to capture this winners-only tournament three straight years.
"This one was the hardest," said Appleby, who went from a two-shot lead to a two-shot deficit before forcing extra holes. "Obviously, I had to win a playoff against Vijay. He was the hottest player by far."
Appleby became the 15th player in PGA Tour history to win the same event three straight years, and the first since Tiger Woods won the Bay Hill Invitational four straight times starting in 2000.
It was only the third playoff at Kapalua, but the finish was familiar -- Appleby with a lei around his neck, the keys to a Mercedes-Benz and another great start to the season. He held up three fingers when he accepted his trophy, then held out his thumb and pinkie, Hawaii's sign that everything is cool.
Singh would not come to the media center for comment.
Appleby won the previous two years by one shot, and both times it came down to the final hole, so it's not as though he breezes his way to victory. But the pressure was on after Singh birdied the 16th hole to take a two-shot lead, then recovered from a bogey on the 17th with a simple chip to a foot for birdie on the 18th.
"I had to do something special coming in. I didn't do it, so I had to do it in the playoff," Appleby said. "Winning the Mercedes is awesome. Winning three times is a dream come true."
Both players finished at 8-under 284, the highest score to win in the eight years the season-opening tournament has been played on the Plantation course at Kapalua.
Not many imagined Singh would be part of a playoff, starting the final round five shots behind. It was only the second round in the 60s all week, the other one a 69 by Olin Browne in the first round when the wind was but a breeze.
All that remained was to see if Appleby could match him.
It wasn't easy for the 34-year-old Australian. Trailing by one shot, Appleby's sand wedge to the 16th landed beyond the green and wound up back in the fairway, the product of too much spin and grain. His chip went 6 feet by, and he made a difficult par putt to keep his hopes alive.
After missing a 15-footer on the 17th, he needed birdie on the 18th to force a playoff. His approach was just short, but he played his 150-foot chip perfectly, and it rolled within 4 feet for a 71 and extra holes.
Appleby won for the seventh time on the PGA Tour, earning $1.08 million and adding to his collection of Mercedes-Benz sports cars that go to the winner.
Jim Furyk shot 72 all four days and joined Appleby as the only players to break par each round on a Plantation course that never played tougher. Furyk was at 4-under 288 to finish third.
U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, in a three-way tie for the lead with seven holes to play, lost his tee shot at No. 12 in the knee-high native grasses and shot 41 on the back nine for a 75 to tie for fourth at 2 under with Vaughn Taylor, who closed with a 71. Lucas Glover was the only other player under par, but he had to birdie three of the last four holes to get to 1-under 291.
Appleby made a 70-foot eagle putt from just off the fifth green to reach 8 under and build a two-shot lead. But when he missed a 4-foot par putt on the 11th, there was a three-way tie with Campbell and Singh.
Campbell fell out of the race quickly, losing his tee shot in knee-high native grasses on the 12th hole to make double bogey and start his slide. Appleby three-putted for bogey on No. 13, losing the lead for the first time since Friday.
Singh was surging, and he chipped nicely to 4 feet for birdie on the 15th, then hit a sand wedge that stopped 3 feet behind the cup for a birdie on the 16th that gave him a two-shot lead.
"I played well all week, I just made a few mistakes each day," Singh told ESPN before the playoff. "Today, I said I was going out there and be a little more aggressive, take on the golf course and hit it like I can."
But the Fijian must wonder what it takes to win at Kapalua. It was his fifth straight year in the top five.
All but five players -- Campbell, Sergio Garcia, Ben Crane, Justin Leonard, Geoff Ogilvy and Ted Purdy -- from the 28-man field will play next week in the Sony Open ... Jason Gore made a par on the final hole to shoot 79, the first time all week he broke 80. He still finished last at 28-over 320, 36 shots out of the lead. ... Half of the field went the entire week without breaking par.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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