After win, great loss

Golf: Stuart Appleby should be able to smile at memories of his victory in last year's Kemper Open, but everywhere he looks he sees his wife.

May 23, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- Most golfers would have pleasant recollections of places where they've won tournaments. For Stuart Appleby, returning recently to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel evoked memories both happy and sad of his victory at last year's Kemper Open.

When he looked out into the brightness of a cool spring morning and onto the newly reseeded fairway of the par-4 18th hole, he thought about his dramatic 3-iron approach shot into the gloaming -- not to mention the wind and rain -- that helped produce a par and preserve his one-shot lead.

But Appleby's thoughts were also about sharing his second PGA Tour win with his wife, Renay. Less than two months later, she was killed outside a London train station as she removed a suitcase from the trunk of a taxi. The accident occurred because the driver put his foot on the accelerator while his vehicle was still in reverse.

When the $2.5 million tournament begins Thursday, it will mark the first time Appleby will be in the role of defending champion since his wife's death.

Asked what might bring back memories, he said: "It may be someone I see or a spot where I'm standing that triggers it. I can only find out. I have no experience in that."

Evidenced by Appleby's victory in last month's Shell Houston Open, the 28-year-old Australian is getting his once-promising career back on track.

The rest of his life is another matter.

"I'm not back at my best as far as I'm concerned in a lot of ways," Appleby told a group of reporters at Avenel recently. "When I'll get there, I'll be better than I was before. But I'm not there yet. I'm still trying to understand. My friends are, too. It's not easy."

Appleby said he has not sought professional counseling or attended any support groups dealing with grief management. Instead he credits his friends on the PGA Tour as well his and Renay's family members in Australia for helping him overcome his loss.

Fellow PGA pro Robert Allenby, who has competed against Appleby since their junior careers in Australia, has watched his longtime friend close up through both the tragedy and subsequent triumphs, including a win at a tournament last winter in Australia.

"I think he's blown everyone out of the water the way he's handled it," Allenby said recently. "He's definitely been strong. Behind closed doors, he's not like that all the time. Obviously, it's killing him inside. He can't share his life with her anymore."

Yet his late wife remains a strong force for Appleby, who said the attitude he possessed that Sunday at The Woodlands was more typical of Renay than of himself.

"I felt I was going to win the tournament," said Appleby, who earned $450,000 for the victory and is now 18th on this year's money list with $752,953. In Houston, he was helped by Hal Sutton's late collapse as he was in Maryland last year by Fred Funk's horrendous final-round start at the Kemper Open.

"I definitely get a lot of strength from her," said Appleby. "I don't think it's all me. I decided to adopt a philosophy and stick with it. It wasn't hard to do. That was a big step in believing in myself. I'd like to re-create that every week."

Appleby shows his inner strength in taking the emotional steps he has made since the accident. He barely remembers his first public appearance less than a month later at the PGA Championship, where he broke down at a press conference and later missed the cut.

"I don't think it's like you can go from one room to another and just close the door," he said. "It's a slow process. I remember that after the accident, I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I didn't know whether it was going to take six months or six years."

It took a trip home last fall for Appleby to get the feeling he was headed in the right direction. After finishing second in the Australian Open, then helping the team from the Southern Hemisphere beat the United States in the Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Appleby won the Coolum Classic.

Coolum had been Renay's favorite event on the Australian tour, a season-ending tournament at which they rode bikes and took walks on the beach before and after her husband played.

"I was very relaxed that week," he said.

His mood changed when he returned for his first PGA tour event in January. "I was out one week and I had enough," he recalled. "It's just been hard to be mentally fit. I get to the golf course and find I have no patience for bad shots or with a lot of things that come up. It's still hard to get a little balance."

Said Allenby: "He has his days, his moments, when he just blanks out. The Houston Open was the first week that he showed a really good attitude."

Appleby hit another terrific 3-iron approach under pressure to help him pass Sutton, then hesitated, his friend said. Should he be overjoyed with his victory or overwrought by not being able to share it with Renay?

"He didn't know what to do," said Allenby, who along with his wife, Sandy, had taken Appleby to dinner the previous night to celebrate Appleby's 28th birthday.

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