- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

Stuart Appleby stands out on the Kemper Open's first-round leader board like a mastiff among mutts.

The 1998 Kemper champion posted an opening 65 at TPC at Avenel yesterday, earning a share of the tournament lead at 6-under with Chris DiMarco and J.J. Henry.

Appleby, who has a five-year run at Avenel rivaled only by Justin Leonard, began his round on the back nine with a bogey on No. 10, added a ho-hum par at the 11th and then erupted. Establishing a tournament record, the 30-year-old Australian reeled off six straight birdies. Incredibly, most of Appleby's red-number run was accomplished from point-blank range. A combination of prodigious drives and brilliant iron play resulted in 3-footers on Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15, followed by a fortuitous chip-in from some 35 feet at No. 16 and concluded with a salvo from eight feet on the treacherous 17th.

"I really didn't even have to hole any putts of consequence [during the streak]," Appleby said. "I just kept knocking it stiff… . The chip-in that went in was the luckiest part of it, and the rest were all pretty easy putts."

The torrid run equaled the longest on the PGA Tour this season and bested Appleby's previous best in five-plus seasons.

"I think I've had four or five in a row every now and then, but six is pretty cool," said Appleby, who has three Tour victories. "I think I had six birdies in a row at my home course [in Cohuna, Australia] back in the early '90s. It might have been 10 years ago… . That was back in the bush. I won by about a thousand shots that time. I remember the people coming up to watch as I got one-two-three-four… . We didn't have golf carts, so you had to run about a half-mile to get out there. By the end of the run, it was a capacity crowd of about four."

Only a few more folks witnessed Appleby's assault yesterday as a sparse crowd turned out for opening-round play on the 7,005-yard, par-71 course. And many of those who did show, including soccer star Mia Hamm, followed primary tournament draw Phil Mickelson (68). That despite Appleby's superior record at Avenel, which includes two top-10 finishes aside from his win and finishes of 18th or better in all five starts.

"There's no one out here today," Appleby said with a somewhat disappointed smirk.

But those on hand saw some serious fireworks. By the time the 156-man field was finished taking target practice at the rain-softened greens, 59 players had broken par. Even veterans long past their primes like Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange who hadn't made a cut between them this season managed to slip around with 70s.

In fact, the first-round scoring performance was the second-lowest in the tournament's history; only the 1991 tournament, in which Billy Andrade and Jeff Sluman set the event's 72-hole scoring record with 21-under totals, produced more sub-par opening rounds (76).

"Any time you have soft greens and you allow guys to lift, clean and place [balls in the fairway], you're going to see lots of red numbers," said DiMarco, who won his first Tour event last season in Pennsylvania but probably gained more notoriety as the first- and second-round leader at last month's Masters.

DiMarco, a rabid Florida Gators fan known for his odd looking "claw" putting grip, hit 17 greens courtesy of some quality ball-striking and the lift, clean and place rule, which also will be in place today. Henry, a rookie familiar with the Kemper's history of crowning first-timers, hit all 14 fairways. And most of the event's top names, including Mickelson, Mark O'Meara (67), Justin Leonard (68), Steve Flesch (68) and Scott Hoch (68), forged rounds that put them in easy striking distance of the leaders.

But nobody is likely to be more of a fan favorite throughout the remainder of the event than the long-knocking Appleby, who turned in 30 strokes and overwhelmed two bogeys with three birdies (Nos. 4, 6 and 9) on his closing nine to finish at 6-under.

Not only is Appleby a past champion with enough good looks and charisma to light up the Outback, he's also one of the sports world's ultimate sympathetic favorites. Less than two months after he hoisted the Kemper crystal, his wife and occasional caddie, Renay, was killed in a bizarre auto accident outside London's Waterloo Train Station on July 23, 1998, the Thursday after that season's British Open at Royal Birkdale.

The tragedy, and Appleby's heart-rending emotional outpouring at the PGA Championship a month later, made his victory at the 1999 Houston Open one of the Tour's most popular among players and fans. If his name stays on the leader board, expect pro-Appleby sentiment to run high on the weekend.

"Every time his name's on the leader board, I root for him," said Jim Daniel, a District native who was in the gallery in 1998 and on hand yesterday. "What he went through was obviously unspeakable, but he dealt with it with such honesty and dignity. He's a class act. How can you not pull for him?"

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