Sunday, April 08, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - Cracking jokes and talking about his impending doom - make that date - with Tiger Woods, Stuart Appleby sounded more like a guy who was leading the Masters than someone who had just made a ghastly triple bogey.

Turns out, Appleby was both.

On a crazy, brutal, wind-swept third round at Augusta National on Saturday, Appleby came out ahead.

He positioned himself to do it by making three straight birdies early, before the wind and weather got really bad.

And he somehow held on late, despite a triple bogey on No. 17 that he called ``a comedy of errors'' - an apt description for a hole he started by driving into a bunker next to the green on No. 7.

He shot a 1-over 73 to finish at 2-over 218 - putting him a stroke ahead of Woods and Justin Rose and also making him the proud new owner of the highest third-round score to lead the Masters in its 71-year history.

``This course,'' Appleby said, ``is ready to slap you in the head if you do anything wrong.''

Speaking of cold doses of reality, he has a 2:15 p.m. tee time with El Tigre in the last group Sunday.

``He won't even know I'm there,'' Appleby said. ``I'm sure I'll know he's there. I'll be the other guy.''

He's trying to become the first Aussie to win the Masters, and was asked if his background playing on the wind-swept landscapes Down Under might provide any advantage in a showdown against Woods.

Thus began this monologue:

``Look, Tiger has always got an advantage,'' Appleby said, getting laughs. ``It's obscene how much of an advantage. It's quite obvious. You don't have to say, `Wow, look at that writer. He stepped out on a limb and said Tiger has an advantage.' Yeah, he has more experience than what's left of the field put together.''

OK, OK, we get it. Appleby (zero majors) versus Woods (12) in the final round of the Masters isn't a fair fight.

But give the guy credit.

This was possibly the most brutal day ever at Augusta, only the eighth time in history that average scores have ballooned past 77. The field of 60 recorded a grand total of 107 birdies, and Appleby, the 35-year-old, eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, had three of those.

``Aussies know how to play in the breeze'' is how Ben Crenshaw explained it.

Whatever the reason, pretty much anyone else in the field would gladly trade places. Maybe even Woods, who would be in the lead were it not for a bogey-bogey finish that had him steaming when he walked off the course.

Or Augusta native Vaughn Taylor, who was the only player to supplant Appleby from the lead when he made birdie on 15 to move to 1 over. It was a brief stay. He finished with three straight bogeys to post a 77 and drop to 4 over. Not bad for this kind of day. But it could have been better.

``I haven't really been in a situation like this before,'' Taylor said. ``You know it's playing really tough. You just try to fight it out. You know if you're going backward, you've just got to try to hang in there and try to make pars.''

Certainly, that was Appleby's strategy after the three early birdies, including one on a 10-foot downhill putt on No. 4, put him in the lead. He is, after all, the guy who strung together 50 straight holes without a bogey at Augusta back in 2001, a record that still stands today.

It was all going to plan until that nasty No. 17, where the fun started when he hit his drive dead left into that trap on No. 7.

``Then, I hit it thin, hit some pine cones, had it bounce down and land in the sand, which was about the only good news there was,'' he said.

Three putts later, he had his 7.

``Stuff like that happens out there,'' he said. ``I'd have to say, I'd take the day on the whole.''

And about that Sunday date with Tiger?

Word has it that Appleby has held his own in the past when the two have played for ``fun.''

``What would you like me to say?'' Appleby said. ``That I cleaned him up all the time? That I'm great on the practice range? I can beat him? I can hit it past him? No, no and no.''

He insists he knows what he's getting into - that the weather will be miserable, the scores will be high and, mostly, that the crowd won't be there to see him.

``It's a very different scenario tomorrow from what the other days have been,'' Appleby said. ``I understand how that works, but yeah, I look forward to it. I've just got to relax and enjoy it. That's how all my best play comes.''

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