It wasn’t a phony laugh, the kind you might offer when trying to conceal a bundle of nerves. It was genuine, the kind you offer when life has kicked you in a most unimaginable way, when you stood merely feet from watching your wife crushed to death while on a second honeymoon.
Stuart Appleby knows grief, and it isn’t the idea of playing golf alongside Tiger Woods in the final pairing today at the Masters. It isn’t close to that.
Appleby says he will enjoy this moment, that he will savor it, that he will relax and just play.
Funny. He is one of the few PGA Tour members you actually believe has it in him. Tragedy has this weird way of extracting perspective.
An Australian has never won the Masters, and although Appleby enters the final round at Augusta National with a one-stroke lead at 2 over par, not a soul from here to Melbourne gives him (or anyone else) a kangaroo’s chance of defeating Woods.
The world’s best player bogeyed his final two holes Saturday to finish with a three-day total of 3-over 219, but then the field came back to him like a lost puppy to its owner. It’s really only about Woods and this brutally tough course now. Everyone else is invisible until they prove worthy of his attention.
“He won’t even know I’m there,” said Appleby. “I’m sure I’ll know he’s there … What would you like me to say? That I cleaned him up all the time? I’m great (against him) on the practice range? I can beat him; I can hit it past him? No, no and no. No, I’ve never had my way with him.”
More laughter. He broke the place up.
Catastrophe thickens our skin. It stiffens our resolve. Appleby is at a wonderful place in life now — this close to winning his first major and happily married at 35 with two young daughters — but it has been a process.
He met Renay White when both were barely 20 and promising young players in Australia, and they followed that predictable journey of becoming friends and falling in love and eventually marrying. She gave up a career in the game to follow his. She was there for every swing as he became a star.
But then came that summer day in 1998, when the couple was traveling from London to Paris, that moment when Renay was unloading luggage outside a train station. As she walked toward a curb, a taxi went in reverse and pinned her to a second car. Stuart rushed to her, administered CPR, massaged her heart, held her hand, checked for a pulse. She was dead upon arrival at the hospital, gone at age 25.
He saw the entire thing.
Can you imagine?
“I really don’t think about it,” Appleby told Golf World. “I can, but I don’t.”
His wife of five years now, Ashley, grew up around the family business in Ohio. A funeral home. Think about that.
You wonder how it all affects him in those moments the golf club doesn’t comply. When he has a chance for a ninth career tour win at Houston last week, but drives into a fairway bunker on the final hole, then smacks his approach into the water. When he is the only player in red here late Saturday and he takes a 7 on the par-4 17th. You wonder how he could ever again take any of this all that seriously.
He is one of the tour’s steadiest talents, ranked No. 31 with nearly $20 million in career earnings and at least one victory in four straight seasons, including the 2003 PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas. The only players with longer active streaks: Woods and Vijay Singh.
In 2002, Appleby lost in a four-man playoff at the British Open. He has been close enough to smell a major championship, just not taste one. Maybe he will be too nervous today. Maybe it will be the same old story of another player losing to Woods before the match begins.
They are all still so intimidated by the thought of playing with him on Sunday. It’s as evident in their words as their sliced drives. Maybe it will be no different for Appleby.
But considering the unfathomable darkness he has known, how can’t it be?
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “A pretty full bag, isn’t it? I’ve got a big day ahead of me. Certainly, the fan base will be toward Tiger. I understand how that works. But, yeah, I look forward to it. I’ve just got to relax and enjoy it.”
If anyone can, it’s him.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or email@example.com.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS