Originally created 04/24/06

Appleby finishes front-running win at Houston



HUMBLE, Texas - Stuart Appleby made it look easy in the Shell Houston Open.

Appleby shot a 5-under 67 on Sunday to cap a wire-to-wire victory and join Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as the only two-time winners on the PGA Tour this year.

Appleby, also the 1999 winner in Houston, finished at 19-under 269 on the new Tournament Course at Redstone, six shots ahead of Bob Estes. Appleby matched the tournament record for margin of victory and was the first player in the event's 60-year history to lead from the opening round to the end.

The victory margin was also a personal best in eight career wins for Appleby. He won twice in playoffs and the other five by one shot.

"To have a comfortable victory has never left my lips," said Appleby, who won in 1999 by one stroke over John Cook and Hal Sutton. "It was nice to know, coming down the last part of the day that things were in hand."

Like a pinch to make sure he wasn't dreaming, Appleby asked caddie Joe Damiano where he stood with two holes left.

"I knew where I was," Appleby said, "I just wanted to hear it from his lips."

Appleby, who turns 35 on May 1, earned $990,000 and has two victories in the same year for the first time in his career. In January, Appleby won the season-opening Mercedes Championships for the third straight time.

Lately, Appleby was growing increasingly frustrated that he couldn't win anywhere but Kapalua.

"There needed be another dose of that throughout the years and there hadn't been," Appleby said. "Winning now, twice, puts that emotional feeling at a higher level. Once is nice, twice certainly shows and proves to you that what you're doing works."

Estes closed with a 69 to finish second, and Steve Stricker was 12 under after a 66. Mathias Gronberg, paired with Appleby on Sunday, had a 73 to match Jerry Smith (72) at 10 under.

None of them ever threatened Appleby, who won for the fourth time in five tournaments when holding the 54-hole lead. His one blemish came in 2004, when he closed with a 76 at Bay Hill and lost to Chad Campbell.

Appleby never wavered this time.

He moved to 15 under on the first hole, curling in a 20-footer that danced halfway around the lip before falling. Gronberg, 5 feet closer, left his birdie putt short.

Appleby extended his lead with birdies on Nos. 4 and 6. Before another birdie at No. 8, Appleby was careful to follow the rules.

He hit his approach into a greenside bunker and found a bug crawling on his ball. He tried to shoo it away, but never touched it. Once the bug disappeared under the sand, Appleby blasted out to 10 feet and sank the putt.

Typical of Gronberg's day, his eagle chip from behind the par-5 eighth lipped out and he gained no ground. Gronberg then three-putted the ninth, while Appleby made a par to lead by four at the turn.

As relaxed as he looked all week, Appleby said he was still churning inside.

"You always feel pressure," he said. "As the week goes on, the pressure mounts. You've got too bleed it off and keep it at the level where the cooker doesn't blow."

It never came close.

Estes mounted the only other mild threat, closing within three on the front nine. But Estes, from Austin, sliced his drive into the water on No. 8 and bogeyed the hole to drop four back.

By the time Appleby reached No. 13, the only question was whether he'd break the tournament scoring record of 22 under set by Vijay Singh in 2002.

Appleby reached the par 5 in two en route to a birdie, then fell back to 19 under with a bogey on 14. He made routine pars the rest of the way.

The Houston Open will move to the weekend before the Masters next year, a jump tournament organizers hope will strengthen the field.

They may also have to sell more players on the 7,457-yard Tournament Course, which got mixed reviews in its debut. The event moved after three years at Redstone's Jacobsen/Hardy course across the street.

Singh, who won the last two years at the other course, didn't like the new one.

"The golf course did not grow on me," said Singh, who finished at 2 under after a closing 71. "Every hole is pretty similar. It's not a bad golf course - I just prefer the other one."

Divots: Singh extended his winless streak to 18 events, his longest drought since 2002. That year, he snapped a 50-start dry spell by winning the Houston Open.... Play was suspended for 40 minutes early Sunday because of fog.... Appleby's win was the second straight and fifth this year by an Australian. Appleby followed Aaron Baddeley's victory at Hilton Head last week. Rod Pampling and Geoff Ogilvy have also won this year.