Appleby finds the good even in bad

Study in contrasts: Stuart Appleby and Ian PoulterFOR a man who two holes from the clubhouse had been eye-balling his playing partner, Ian Poulter, on four-under, only to finish bogey, double-bogey and four shots adrift of the defending champion, Stuart Appleby was in a surprisingly expansive mood. And not just about party pies.

”We’ve got these back home in Florida, the Australian Bakery Cafe makes them,” Appleby said, the roof of his mouth struggling to digest his post-round snack far more than his stomach was burning at an opportunity lost. Besides, his head was still spinning at being in a place so familiar, yet eerily like he’d rarely seen it before.

Talk among the triumvirate of Masters winners in group 33 (Richard Green the third) had regularly come back to conditions that Appleby called extremely unusual. Barely a whisper of wind had brushed his weathered cheeks all afternoon; gazing at the sky, a hand raised, he might have been announcing the opening credits of a Hitchcock movie, where all was too calm to be true.

”It’s weird how it’s just still out here, it’s strange,” he said, recalling many more days where he’d walked off a nearby practice range having conceded it was pointless practising in such howling wind, than days like this that left him shaking his head muttering, ”Holy shit, it’s still!”

Which is why Poulter could look at his own near-flawless 67 and declare it merely ”acceptable”; the Englishman knew he’d missed a rare chance to take a course that’s short on yardage but long on tricks by the throat and give it a good shake.

”I holed a couple of nice putts (but) I made a real pig’s ear of 16, that was not very nice at all,” Poulter said. As a man who backs his smooth game to hold up when the wind blows, he wasn’t much interested in Appleby’s banter about this unusually benign day.

For more than four hours of his stroll around Kingston Heath, the only hint of frustration from Poulter was a quip to his caddie about how poor the service was at their restaurant of choice the previous evening. Granted, two hours is a long time to be left twiddling your fork. Then he had one of those moments that make weekend hackers feel better about their scrappy existence, and defending champions feel like berks, as they might say back at his Buckinghamshire local.

Having pushed his tee shot at the downhill, dog-leg 16th to the left, Poulter aimed to punch a low iron off firm ground, brushed a ti-tree branch in his backswing, and ”topped” it. As his ball bobbled miserably across the fairway into a bunker, he offered an assessment of commendably calm understatement. ”Probably not the best of shots.”

That he escaped with bogey after a too-thick sand wedge covered only half of the 100 metres between him and the green brightened his mood somewhat, but it soon soured in the media tent at the suggestion that, in a perfect world, Matthew Whatsisname would vanish from the top of the leaderboard, and he and Adam Scott would be left to duel for the spoils come Sunday.

”I’m obviously not answering that question,” Poulter said, reminding all present that it was Thursday, not Sunday, and there were 120 players in the field, not two.

Poulter had channelled Deep Purple in his choice of outfit, and for much of the afternoon made golf look as routine as Smoke On The Water is to budding guitarists. He didn’t miss a fairway until the 13th, and even then it seemed he pushed a drive marginally right just to have a look at the rough for future reference. A deft wedge over bunkers and easy-as-you-like birdie putt made the exercise worthwhile.

While Green went about his work quietly on the way to a 71, Appleby was a picture of fidgety unease, calling for quiet, backing away from his ball, reminding photographers not to shoot before the golfer had shot. He later admitted to rarely feeling ”comfortable”, hitting the ball decently save for a couple of sloppy mistakes at the end, but putting throughout with a skittishness that didn’t do justice to he and Green’s Kingston Heath history stretching back to their amateur days.

On the positive side, party pies notwithstanding, he’d played without any physical discomfort, no small mercy for a man who has been so dogged by the back pain that forced him out of his title defence at Victoria last year as to make him wonder at times why he still bothered.

”It’s hard to override pain, your body just tells you, ‘Not doing that, that’s it’,” Appleby said of the nerve impingement that first restricted his body, then messed with his mind. ”My confidence went to shit too, every part of my game was like, ‘What am I doing? I just cannot hit it’.”

On Thursday he stood over the ball convinced he could hit the maker’s name off it and not feel a thing. He’d told Poulter he could remember perhaps only three occasions when the Heath provided such a calm canvas. In such a setting, Poulter said he would fully expect to play well, and bank on Scott doing likewise.

Asked if more of the same could be anticipated on Friday, he looked to the only thing likely to get in the way. ”Can you tell me the weather forecast?”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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