Appleby leery of charging Tiger
LA JOLLA, Calif. – Stuart Appleby has been here before, and he’s certainly no dummy.
So as he clings to a slim one-shot lead over the best player in the world at the halfway mark of the U.S. Open, the Australian has a plan for staving off Tiger Woods on Saturday at the South Course at Torrey Pines.
“I’ll be doing my best to accidentally throw a club towards his sore knee,” Appleby said. “It would be an accident, of course.”
He was obviously joking, but the way Woods played over his final nine holes on Friday, the plan might not be such a bad idea.
Appleby, powered by a 45-foot bomb for birdie on the 18th green, shot a 1-under-par 70 to get to 3-under 139 through 36 holes, allowing him a small cushion over Woods, Rocco Mediate and Robert Karlsson.
His biggest threat, of course, is Woods, who rattled off five birdies over his final nine holes – he started on No. 10 – for a blazing 5-under 30; he finished with a 68.
Woods, playing in an all-star group with Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, was 3-over for the championship when he made the turn and found himself well behind Mediate, who at one point was leading at 4-under. But an improbable birdie at the par-4 first hole paved the way for his near-record run for nine holes in a major. Woods’ tee shot leaked right and came to a stop a few inches from the cart path in a batch of hard dirt and sparse grass.
Forced to hit his approach shot while standing on the cart path in his metal spikes, he drilled an 8-iron from 157 yards to 10 feet.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything particular with that shot,” Woods said. “Just trying to dump it in the center of the green and carry it over that front bunker.”
On a mostly overcast day with mild wind blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, the South Course put up its defenses from the outset. Miguel Angel Jimenez carded the low round of the tournament with a 66, but only eight players finished 36 holes in red numbers. It wasn’t like last year at Oakmont, where no player was under par, but Torrey Pines was penal in its own way.
Appleby, an eight-time PGA Tour winner, has seen his share of red numbers.
The 37-year-old followed his opening 69 with a 70 that included four birdies and three bogeys.
He got to 3-under with a 15-foot birdie on the par-5 ninth, but gave two back on 11 and 12 before rallying on 13 with a 120-yard sand wedge to 2 feet.
Appleby has been surfacing more and more on major championship leaderboards.
He lost in a playoff to Ernie Els in the 2002 British Open at Muirfield and held the 54-hole lead at last year’s Masters before finishing with a 75 and dropping into a tie for seventh. It was his fourth top-10 finish in a major.
With that kind of record, some might say he’s in a comfort zone at this level. But Appleby has a different take on it.
“Majors are not a comfortable zone,” said Appleby, who finished in a tie for eighth at this year’s Buick Invitational. “They’re not supposed to be comfortable. That’s sort of why there are only four of them a year, and they’re always on testing golf courses.”
Woods, who got his round dialed in once he made the turn, was asked about his zone on the front nine.
“Whether you call it the zone or not, it just feels like a nice rhythm,” he said. “Been there before. But today I was just trying to get back to even par to be honest with you. That’s all I was trying to do, and I just happened to make a couple more putts.”
Mediate was a surprise fixture on the leaderboard as the 45-year-old PGA Tour veteran found himself the lone leader until three back-nine bogeys got him off track. But Mediate, who has battled chronic back problems for most of his career and played on a minor medical extension last season, is relishing his 69-71 start.
“I love this tournament because, first of all, it’s ours,” said Mediate, a qualifier whose best U.S. Open finish is a fourth-place showing in 2001 at Southern Hills. “I love these setups because it doesn’t require eight birdies a day and 25-under par to win. It requires around par, which is my favorite thing.”
Davis Love III, the 1997 PGA champion, and D.J. Trahan, this year’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic winner, each fired a 69 and are two back at 141. Love, who hasn’t contended in a major since finishing fourth in the 2005 PGA Championship, rattled off three straight birdies on the front side, rolling in birdies putts of 7, 10 and 25 feet.
For Love, a 19-time tour winner, getting back into contention is a soothing antidote to his 2007 season, which ended prematurely when he tore tendons in his left ankle after stepping in a hole while playing golf at home in Sea Island, Ga. He was forced to have surgery and is still searching for his first top-10 finish in 2008.
“I’ve had some real good help from therapists and trainers to get back to where I could at least start playing,” said Love, who was forced to qualify for the Open for the first time in nearly two decades. “Once you get physically healthy then you have to get brain healthy. And there’s very few people that seem to be able to help you with that.”
After Sunday, a guy named Tiger may be available.