Appleby stayed in control of his emotions on Sunday evening as he held up the Houston Open trophy in his right hand, waved his visor with his left and accepted the crowd's ovation during the award ceremony on the 18th green. There was a bit of distance in his voice as he addressed the gallery. "This is a very weird moment for me," he said. "I feel great, really great to be here. Obviously, not having Renay here—she's here in spirit—is a different feeling."
Appleby's win surprised many of the fans, who had expected and were pulling for a Hal Sutton victory. Sutton, who led by two over Joey Sindelar and by three over Appleby going into the final round, has had close calls before in Houston and is from a Louisiana oil family, which makes him an honorary Texan. He faltered down the stretch, though, bogeying two of the last three holes to fall into a tie for second with John Cook, a stroke behind Appleby. The fans were quick to change allegiances. They roared when Appleby made a 12-foot birdie putt on the dangerous par-4 17th to tie for the lead, and thundered their approval when he two-putted for par at 18 to finish with a 71 and a nine-under total of 279.
Cook also finished heroically, holing a bunker shot for birdie at the 16th and making another birdie at 17. "Sometimes you think you've got a black cloud over your head," he said. "Then you look at Stuart. It was very awkward talking to him at first. I saw him at the PGA and all I could talk to him about was BMWs. I couldn't look at him. You can see he's still a little hollow in places."
Cook said the same is true for his mentor, CBS commentator Ken Venturi, who lost his wife, Beau, to cancer in July 1997 "Ken is happy to be around his friends and working," said Cook. "He likes to work, but when he walks through the front door [of his house] on Marco Island [ Fla.], you don't know. Once he and Stuart go back to their rooms, that's the difficult part."
The TPC at The Woodlands proved to be the difficult part for everyone last week. Appleby's 279, on rounds of 70, 68, 70 and 71, was the highest winning score there in a decade. Gusty winds kept The Woodlands' many water hazards busier than usual. Even defending champ David Duval, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, who was coming off a two-week vacation, proved that he's human. He moved into contention at seven under through 14 holes on Saturday, then sailed a drive way left and out of bounds on the 15th, resulting in a double bogey. He limped in with a 78 and a 76 on the weekend, his worst numbers since missing the cut in the '98 PGA.
Meanwhile Appleby quietly hung around the lead, his only spectacular shot coming on Thursday, when he salvaged a bogey on the 7th hole by playing out of ankle-deep water. He finished the tournament, though, with a familiar flourish. At last year's Kemper Open, Appleby drilled a fearless three-iron through the wind and onto the final green to clinch a one-shot victory. On Sunday, after he had ballooned his tee shot at the watery 18th, Appleby provided a Kemper replay. He hit a solid three-iron over the pond fronting the green of the 445-yard par-4 and made the par he needed.
Appleby's victory was a feel-good moment for just about everyone. "If somebody had to beat me, I'm glad it was Stuart," said Sutton. "I'm sure somebody's smiling down on him right now." Even Mark Wiebe, who double-bogeyed the 17th to come in fourth, left The Woodlands with a smile on his face.
Wiebe's life has looked like the script for a B movie lately. He has been sidelined by a respiratory problem and plagued by back trouble. Like everyone else who lives in Denver, Wiebe was devastated by the shootings at Columbine High in Littleton. In addition, a close friend of Wiebe's is seriously ill and faces a long hospital stay. All of that, and Appleby's loss, has helped him put life in perspective.
"I'm going home tonight to see my wife and kids for two days," he said as he climbed into his car in the clubhouse parking lot. "I'm pretty excited."