- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The U.S. Open masquerading as the 71st Masters devolved into complete calamity yesterday at Augusta National.

When darkness fell on the most grisly day of golf in the bentgrass era (1981-present), not a single player on the property was left standing at par or better after three rounds of attrition on the cold, windswept emerald tarmac.

Like the most ambulatory patient from a battlefield triage tent, Australian Stuart Appleby gimped into the media center at 2-over (218) shortly after dusk with the highest 54-hole lead in Masters history.

It’s rare that a golfer posts a triple-bogey on the back nine, as Appleby did on the 7,445-yard, par-72 layout’s penultimate hole, and claim to be atop any list other than the goatdom sweepstakes. But such was the merciless nature of Augusta National during a day that yielded an average score of 77.35, the fifth highest in Masters’ history and the highest of the bentgrass era.

“I don’t think we’ve seen scores anything like this at Augusta National for a long time,” said Appleby, who posted a 73 to stand one shot clear of 12-time major champion Tiger Woods (219) and England’s Justin Rose (219). “Man, it was frigid. I’ve played in colder conditions. But with the dryness of the golf course and that [cold weather], too, it was a tough, tough day.”

Despite overnight watering by the maintenance staff, Augusta National’s greens quickly reverted to the approach-mocking concrete firmness that tormented the field on Thursday and Friday. And yesterday, the elements joined the onslaught against the field, temperatures in the high 40s and wind gusts up to 23 mph making an already torturous challenge almost unplayable.

“It was a tough day with the wind gusts,” said Woods, who is in perfect position opposite Appleby in today’s final pairing to collect his fifth green jacket and 13th major title. “You hit quality shots and just get absolutely hosed.”

The 31-year-old Woods seemed almost immune to the conditions for most of the day, marching from 3-over at the start to 1-over through 16 before stumbling for the second time in three days with closing bogeys at No. 17 and 18.

Woods earned his bogey at the 17th with a wayward drive, hooking his teeball into the bogey-booking left treeline. But his finishing bogey was illustrative of just how miserable conditions had become by late yesterday afternoon.

Woods stood in the middle of the fairway just 156 yards from the pin after a perfect drive at the 18th, but the wind switched directions and gusted just as he struck his approach, turning what was supposed to be a gentle draw with an 8-iron into what looked like a completely fanned sand wedge. Thanks to the gust, Woods’ approach came up 100 feet short and right of the pin, and he was unable to convert an up-and-down attempt from 10 feet that would have earned him a share of the lead.

But given his extraordinary track record as the game’s most merciless closer, and the relative resume lightweights joining him in the crucible today, nobody would bet against him slipping into a fifth 42-long later this afternoon.

Of the seven players at 5-over or better heading into today’s finale, only Woods boasts a major victory.

“He won’t even know I’m there,” Appleby said of his pairing with the game’s gargantuan. “I’m sure I’ll know he’s there.”

Though the 35-year-old Australian has one of the game’s best personalities and a solid game that has yielded eight PGA Tour victories, Appleby’s major career has been an abject failure to date. Given his reputation as one of the game’s best ball-strikers, Appleby’s two top-10s in 40 career major starts is nothing short of shocking.

His only true brush with immortality came at Muirfield in 2002, when he played himself into a four-way British Open playoff only to watch Ernie Els hoist the claret jug.

Quite frankly, not only has Appleby’s suspect short game always held him back at the majors, he is well-known to have a bit of a fragile constitution. That soft will wasn’t particularly in evidence yesterday, though his triple at the 17th might easily have been managed at double-bogey had he not gotten a bit greedy from a fairway bunker after snaphooking his drive onto No. 7.

Basically, everyone on the property had a disaster or two yesterday, and Appleby just happened to pay his entire day’s penance on one hole.

Today, however, will be a monumental challenge for the Aussie, given the combination of Woods’ presence, another nasty forecast, a typical Tiger gallery and Appleby’s dearth of major experience. And perhaps to his credit, Appleby is well aware of the Everest-esque task at hand.

“Look, Tiger has always got an advantage. It’s obscene it’s such an advantage,” said Appleby, a neighbor of Woods’ at Isleworth in Orlando and one of Tiger’s best friends on tour. “He has more experience than what’s left of the field put together. What would you like me to say? That I cleaned him up all the time [in our private games]? That I’m better on the practice range? That I can beat him? That I can hit it past him? No, no and no. No, I’ve never had my way with him.”

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