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For a moment or two today, Stuart Appleby threatened to pull off one of the biggest upsets in professional golf this year at The Barclays in New Jersey.
The 43-year-old Appleby, who has not won on the PGA Tour since 2010, seized the lead in the first of four season-ending playoff tournaments with a dramatic back-nine run.
Ultimately he was overhauled by American Hunter Mahan, but Appleby appears to be back in town after some of the toughest years of his professional career. Talk about a story of persistence and gritty determination.
The Victorian, an 18-year veteran of the tour, lost his playing rights at the end of 2012 and had to use a career-earnings exemption, a one-off luxury afforded players who are in the top 15 on the all-time PGA Tour money list, to play on the main tour in 2013.
He squeezed through into the top 125, and even this year he only qualified for the playoffs in 98th spot, with two top-10 finishes. Appleby has been dogged by a lower back injury for several years but more recently he has found a way to manage the issue.
Today he was dynamic, starting out well back three from the lead held by Jason Day and Jim Furyk and quietly meandering through the front nine before the putts began rolling in. He birdied three in a row, the 10th, 11th and 12th, then the 14th and 15th as well, his short stick running hot as he vaulted to the outright lead.
Then at the 16th, his left-to-right curler for birdie headed at the cup and Appleby formed a fist with his right hand. But it burned the hole, and the celebration had to be aborted. When he needed more birdies, he could only find pars, including a bomb to save himself from dropping a shot at the 17th.
Appleby carded a 65, six-under par, posted 12-under for the tournament, and waited. His back nine was 31, and could scarcely have been better.
But it was a day for low scoring and even by the time he played the 16th he had been joined in the lead by Cameron Tringale and Mahan, who was white hot. By the time Mahan hit it close at the 16th and rolled in a birdie putt on the 17th he had stretched the lead to three, and not even a bogey at the last could stop him from winning for the first time in two years with a brilliant 65.
Appleby finished tied-second with Tringale and Day, his best result since his famous final-day 59 to win the Greenbier Classic in 2010. A nine-time winner on the tour, he has leapt to 19th in the Fedex Cup points rankings, well-placed to contend again over the next couple of weeks.
He started out chasing six birdies, which is his usual mantra. He actually had seven, and even that was not enough. "Today that's what I was thinking,'' said Appleby. "I got into the back nine and I'm thinking 'six might not be enough'. You get back to this is the Fedex playoffs. If I could time my performances like this, it'd be nice. My years' been a bit quiet so it was really nice to get out there today and feel more comfortable. I felt the nerves, but I dealt with them nice, which was great. It's a great test of golf and it's just nice to roll the ball and get some putts dropping.''
The veteran was rapt to have the feeling of being in contention again. "I've won tournaments but it's been a long time. Sometimes that experience can wear thin and it doesn't shine through. I went out there and thought 'don't fight, don't wrestle the golf course. If you get an opportunity, give it a roll, see what happens'.''
Queenslander Day carded a three-under 68 and in truth, did nothing wrong. When he birdied the 14th to reach 11-under for the tournament he was just a shot from the lead, but he could not make anything happen from there. He needed eagle at the last to force a playoff with Mahan, but his drive scudded right into the heavy rough and he could not find the green.
Day is now seventh on the Fedex Cup rankings going to Boston this week for the Deutschebank Championship. Eight Australians have progressed to the second of the four playoff tournaments, all worth $8 million. Adam Scott closed with a 68 today to finish tied-15th, while of the 10 Australians who teed off at Ridgewood Country Club, two — Aaron Baddeley and Robert Allenby — are done for the season. Victorian Geoff Ogilvy qualified for Boston in 100th and last place after missing the cut and spending the weekend waiting to see if his ranking would improve, a nice reprieve.
AUSTRALIAN FEDEX CUP RANKINGS
7 Jason Day, 16 Adam Scott, 19 Stuart Appleby, 28 John Senden, 36 Marc Leishman, 44 Steven Bowditch, 54 Matt Jones, 100 Geoff Ogilvy.