Appleby searching for fourth straight win

The 2007 PGA Tour season is about to begin without Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen, which is bad news for the newly renamed Mercedes-Benz Championship, but not so much for Stuart Appleby, who is trying to become the second golfer since World War II and just the fifth in history to win the same tournament four straight times. It's such a rare feat that Appleby's chances of winning again should be very slim, but the fact it's a small field -- one minus the aforementioned superstars -- plays to Appleby's advantage.

The short list of players who have won the same event three times in a row is select, a Who's Who of golf history, but since WWII only Woods has been able to extend his streak to a fourth year. Here's how the triple winners in the postwar era have fared in their attempt to extend their streak.

In addition to Woods, who won for the fourth time at Bay Hill in 2003, only Thomson, Casper and Watson were within three strokes of the winner the fourth time around. But this week, Appleby has a few advantages the others didn't. First, only 34 players are in the winners'-only field at Kapalua. Fewer players make the odds better for Appleby, especially when those players include the names Axley, Pavin and Rollins but not Woods or Mickelson, who opted out of the season opener; or Els, Harrington, Garcia and Goosen, who didn't win on the PGA Tour in 2006.

Appleby isn't threatened by anyone in the field. He beat Vijay Singh in a playoff a year ago (and by one stroke in 2004), and only one person who won the tournament from 1994 to 2003 (Davis Love III) is in the field in 2007. There's also no cut, so a bad start won't necessarily eliminate Appleby from competition, although if the course plays as easy as it did in 2004 and 2005, an early score of par or worse won't get it done.

Appleby has won at Kapalua in all kinds of conditions. He won when the wind was up, as it was last year and the course played difficult (the eight-under 284 total was by far the highest winning total in the eight years the event has been held in Hawaii). He's also won when it was among the easiest stops on tour: In 2004, Appleby made 29 birdies en route to a 22-under 271 in the one-stroke win over Singh. One year later he made 23 birdies and an eagle (and just two bogeys) to finish at 21 under, a stroke better than Jonathan Kaye. He has won when it was hard to hit the fairway (in 2004 and 2006 he hit 46 fairways and ranked among the top 10 both weeks) and when it was easy to hit fairways (he hit the short grass 47 times in 2005, but was just T-18 among 31 players that week). He won by hitting greens (62 in 2005) and when he didn't (55 in 2004, ranked T-23 among 30 players).

It has been Appleby's putting on the Plantation Course's TifEagle Bermuda greens that has set him apart. The Australian has finished either first or second in total putts and in distance of putts made during all three of his wins. It all adds up to a better than average chance for Appleby to extend his winning streak and join Woods, Walter Hagen (1924-1927 PGA), Gene Sarazen (1926, 1928-1930 Miami Open) and Young Tom Morris (1868-1871 British Open) as the only players to win the same event four straight times.

The fearsome foursome (not including Appleby)
Vijay Singh: He has come the closest to ending Appleby's streak, losing by a stroke in 2004 and in the playoff a year ago. He's also, arguably, the best player in the field, and although his 2006 season was a bit shy of his recent standards, expect Singh to prove himself early in 2007.

David Toms: He won in Hawaii last year, taking the Sony Open by five strokes over Chad Campbell and Rory Sabbatini. Toms also has a runner-up finish at Kapalua, losing a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2002.

Jim Furyk: If Singh's not the best player on the Plantation Course, it's Furyk, the 2001 champion. He was third a year ago and, with four rounds of one-under 72, joined Appleby as the only players to shoot four subpar scores. In fact, since 2000, Furyk has shot just one round over par in six trips to Kapalua.

Rory Sabbatini: The great start a year ago has us convinced this guy knows how to get out of the gate. He was second in his first appearance here in 2001 and did play well in his only appearance in Hawaii a year ago (second to Toms at the Sony).

John Antonini is a senior editor for Golf World magazine. Do you have a question or comment for John? Send your inquiries to editors@golfdigest.com with the word "Antonini" in the subject field.