Australia's Stuart Appleby began this New Year as he did the last by winning the Mercedes Championship at the Kapalua Plantation Course, in this instance by a single shot from Jonathan Kaye, the only American in the field who really threatened through 72 holes.
Appleby's retention of the Mercedes title may be as significant as his win last year in this opening event of the USPGA Tour season for it propels him to 11th place in the world rankings and he has the class to snatch a top-10 place before long. The Mercedes $1 million prize enabled him to jump two places and had the luxury car that came with the win been included in the reckoning, he might have hit the ten spot.
What one takes on the current form of the players from this event is anybody's guess. Appleby won with a staggering 21 under par, a 271 total for four rounds on a par 73 course. This might speak volumes about his form but the figure becomes less telling when one considers that the last person in the 31-man field palyed to level par in the process of collecting $65,000 for his efforts. Clearly the Plantation Course is not the most testing of venues.
Possibly of greater significance than Appleby's win was Vijay Singh's failure. The world No1 led the field for much of three rounds and would surely have triumphed but for an horrendous triple bogey at the par four 13th hole in the last round, Appleby's eagle at the par five 6th and Kaye performing similarly at the 9th. The 13th was Singh's only error in four rounds but it was enough to leave him three shots adrift, tied with Adam Scott and Stewart Cink in fifth place. Vijay is not given to making many mistakes and after returning a 66, 67 and a 69, his last round 74 is not likely to be repeated. Singh is playing with all of the authority with which he dominated last year and is not likely to relinquish his place at the top of the Order of Merit readily. The two big boys who shared joint third place, however, are not likely to allow his tenure to be comfortable.
Tiger Woods started the New Year with the form that he ended the last. He also starts the year hitting fairways, which must be causing consternation among the lads. The fact that he failed to make a great many putts and still finished two shots off the winner's rostrum is significant and must have caused sleeplessness in the field.
Ernie Els shared third place with Woods and, like his great adversary, made equally few mistakes off the tee while missing short putts with the same frequency. On a course where the length was largely made up on par five holes, putting is critical at Kapalua. Woods and Els were not alone in finding the greens grainy and quirky. They were among the few in the field who were consistent in their scoring. Els had a 65 and a 71 but Tiger ticked like a clock with 68, 68, 69 and 68. In contrast, Craig Parry, who was in second place with a 67 after the first round, followed that with a 72 when he was unable to hole a putt. His was a story that was reflected through a field that, to a man, showed frustration on the grainy greens.
Mike Weir shot an all-time low 63 on the second day but tumbled on the greens to a 76 in the fourth round. Retief Goosen lost his stoic countenance to a perpetual grimace on every green and Sergio Garcia's animations broke new ground.
The grainy greens at Kapalua were not easy; a putt against the grain required a rap akin to putting through water. It is not surprising that, having nursed a silky putting touch through the seasonal celebrations the field appeared tentative about exerting the necessary power. It is perhaps significant that Stuart Appleby had the worst first round score in the field, returning a 74. Coming from eight shots behind Singh, the first round leader, Appleby threw caution to the winds and holed everything on his way to a second round 64 and followed that with a 66 and 67.
This week's Hawaiian Open will be an altogether different affair. Not only will the greens be more predictable but there will also be a greater premium on the tee shot. Appleby, despite his ongoing anxiety about his back and concern about his wife in the later stages of pregnancy back in Australia, will be there or thereabouts but it is hard to see beyond the scoring consistency of Singh, Woods and Els on their current form. Also, I can't see any of them being distracted by the talent of a teenage girl in the field, indeed, her presence may even be inspiring.
|| 14 - JANUARY 2005