Appleby keeps his distance

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HUMBLE, Texas – Stuart Appleby remained in position to join Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as the only two-time winners on the PGA Tour this year, shooting a 3-under 69 Saturday to take a two-stroke lead in the Shell Houston Open.

Appleby had five birdies in his third straight sub-70 round at The Tournament Course at Redstone to finish at 14 under. The Australian bogeyed the difficult 18th, a hole he birdied at the end of a 66 in the first round.

Sweden’s Mathias Gronberg birdied the 18th for a 67 and a 12-under total. Jerry Smith (69) and Bob Estes (66), who lives in Austin, were four shots back at 10 under.

They all made surges Saturday, but never overtook Appleby, who won the season-opening Mercedes Championships for the third straight year.

Appleby was one of 44 players who finished the rain-delayed second round Saturday morning. He parred his two remaining holes for a 67 to finish at 11 under, then opened his third round with three straight pars.

Appleby kick-started his day with a short birdie putt on the par-5 fourth. He chipped in over a ridge for another birdie at No. 6 and made a 30-footer on No. 7 to move to 14 under.

Greg Owen, who shot a tournament-low 65 on Friday, played with Appleby and birdied the first hole to tie for the lead. Owen promptly bogeyed No. 2, starting the downward spiral to a 75.

With Owen fading, Brett Wetterich was the next to mount a charge at Appleby with four straight birdies on the front nine. But Wetterich dunked his tee shot in the water on the 18th and shot a 69 to finish at 8 under.

Gronberg opened with seven pars, then started a run of five birdies in six holes on the par-5 eighth. He dropped to 11 under with a bogey at 17, then got the shot back with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

Smith birdied both par 5s on the back nine.

Estes, who turned 40 in February, was 6 under at the turn, then made three straight birdies on 11, 12 and 13. He also birdied the par-5 15th to reach 10 under and saved par at the tough 17th with a pitch from the side of the green.

“That’s probably the best shot I hit all day,” said Estes, an 18-year tour veteran who hasn’t won since 2002. “All I was trying to do was get it anywhere on the green.”

Estes, a University of Texas graduate, had a throng of Longhorns’ fans cheering him all day – fan support he never gets at tour stops outside the state.

“It definitely helps to have more people in the crowd saying things,” Estes said.

While Estes has the crowd behind him, it’s Appleby who looks right at home. He has hit 30 of 42 fairways and 42 of 54 greens in regulation through three rounds.

Appleby, who won the tournament in 1999, is trying to earn the sixth victory in Houston by an Australian. Robert Allenby, David Graham, Bruce Crampton and Bruce Devlin are also past champions.

Haas leads Stadler by two shots in Legends

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Jay Haas survived a bogey on the final hole to take a two-shot lead in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf on Saturday.

Haas shot a 4-under 68 at The Club at Savannah Harbor, a 7,087-yard island layout in the middle of the Savannah River. That put him at 10-under 134 and earned him a pairing in Sunday’s final round with fan favorite Craig Stadler, who shot a 67.

“Craig is just what you see. There’s no disguising him,” Haas said. “He let’s you know how he feels. He’s a lot of fun to play with.”

Jerry Pate (69), winner of the Outback Steakhouse Pro Am in February, was another stroke back at 137 and Bob Murphy (69) was four behind in the Champions Tour event.

Hale Irwin (69), Peter Jacobsen (69) and Allen Doyle (68) were five shots back at 139.

Haas, seeking his first win of the season after earning Champions Tour rookie of the year honors in 2005, made the turn at even par. Then he got on a roll, making birdies on four of the first five holes of his last nine.

Haas got to 11 under with another birdie on the par-3 17th, but gave that one back with a bogey on No. 18 where his 7-iron approach missed the green.

“I kind of fell asleep on the second shot,” Haas said. “The green is about the size of Texas and I still managed to miss it. Then, I fell in love with the line on my putt (from 8 feet), but forgot about the speed.”

Stadler, the 1982 Masters champion who was rookie of the year in 2003 on the over-50 circuit, delighted fans all day with some shots others might not attempt. Stadler hit successive drivers and then hit a pitching wedge to inside 4 feet on the 530-yard, par-5 No. 11. The fans roared again after he rolled in a birdie putt from almost 58 feet at No. 16.

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Stenson leads Asian Open into final round

SHANGHAI, China – Sweden’s Henrik Stenson shot a 1-under 71 Saturday to take a one-stroke lead after three rounds of the BMW Asian Open.

Stenson, the leader since the first round, had a 54-hole total of 6-under 210 at the Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club.

“I always prefer to lead rather than be a few shots back,” he said.

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano was one stroke behind after shooting a 69, putting himself in contention for the second straight week.

“I’m not the one who has to win tomorrow. I’ll just go out and play my best golf,” said Fernandez-Castano, who finished second at last week’s China Open in Beijing.

Paul Casey (68), Australia’s Peter O’Malley (69), and New Zealand’s Mahal Pearce (68) were at 4-under.

Scotland’s Paul Lawrie (73), who was second when rain delayed Friday’s second round, was tied for sixth at 3-under alongside Austria’s Markus Brier (70).

Stenson is enjoying a hot streak, with three top-ten finishes this year, including a win at the Qatar Masters in January.

Sorenstam back on top at Eagle’s Landing

STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. – Whether it’s one stroke or 10, Annika Sorenstam looks awfully imposing at the top of a leaderboard.

That’s where she was going into the final round at Eagle’s Landing Country Club.

Shrugging off a couple of rain delays, Sorenstam shot an 8-under-par 64 on Saturday – her third straight round in the 60s – and grabbed the lead at the Florida’s Natural Charity Championship.

“It’s been a long day. A very long day,” said Sorenstam, who finished up in the next-to-last group just as the sun was dipping below the trees at the course south of Atlanta. “But I’m very happy with my score. I thought I played some good golf.”

A year ago, Sorenstam had essentially wrapped up this tournament by the end of the third round, taking a 10-stroke lead to Sunday and winning by the same margin. This time, she went into the final 18 holes with a one-stroke cushion over 36-hole leader Sung Ah Yim, who posted a bogey-free 68.

“It’s a little bit of a different situation than last year,” Sorenstam said. “But having said that, I’m in great shape for tomorrow. I’m happy with the way I’m playing. I’m hitting a lot of fairways and greens, and I’m putting well.”

Indeed, it would be a major surprise if she doesn’t hang on to the lead.

Sorenstam is the only two-time winner of this event, and now she’s has a chance to be the first to win it back-to-back. She’s homing in on her second LPGA Tour win of the year and 68th of her Hall of Fame career.

Contrast that with Yim, a 22-year-old South Korean who’s in just her second year on the LPGA Tour and has never finished higher than third.

And what about the rest of the field? No one else was within five shots of Sorenstam’s 17-under total of 199.

“She’s really better than me,” Yim acknowledged. “But I’m not scared. I’ve just got to hit it straight. Just do it.”

The start of the third round was delayed 45 minutes by rain, and play was halted again for nearly 11/2 hours while thunderstorms moved through the area. The rest of the round was played in mostly sunny conditions, though the final groups barely had enough daylight to finish up.

“The last four holes, we were playing straight into the sun and straight into the wind,” Sorenstam said. “I was looking at the clock, hoping, wondering, Can we finish today?’ It would have been quite a tough day (Sunday) if we couldn’t finish, have to get up early, finish and then start over.”

After teeing off late, Sorenstam was forced back to the clubhouse after playing a couple of holes. But she got things rolling with four straight birdies to finish the front nine, sinking three testy putts between 9 and 12 feet.

Sorenstam scrambled at the end for the lead. She hit two bunkers on No. 17, but managed to sink a 12-foot putt to save par. Then, going for the green with her second shot at the par-5 18th, her ball clipped an oak tree overhanging the fairway and fell to the ground along with a limb.

“My caddie told me not to get too cute,” Sorenstam said. “He told me, Just get it on the green. You’re putting well.’ That’s what I did.”

Sorenstam chipped 12 feet past the hole, then made the birdie putt coming back. She pumped her fist as the ball disappeared into the hole.

Karrie Webb, playing in her first tournament since winning the year’s opening major, dropped back with a 70. She’s among those in a five-way tie at 204, joined by rookie Brittany Lang, Beth Daniel, 49-year-old Sherri Turner and Jeong Jang.

Turner turned in the best round of the day, an amazing 63 that pushed her into contention. She had eight birdies, plus an eagle at the par-3 second hole, but a bogey at No. 7 cost her a chance to tie the course record (62) set by Barb Kolb in 1999.

Turner captured the last of her three tour victories in 1989. She hasn’t finished higher than 33rd this year but always seems to play well on this course, shooting a 63 in 1995 and making the only two double-eagles in tournament history.

“I’m very, very pleased,” Turner said. “It’s been a long time since I had a good score on Saturday.”

Jee Young Lee, who trailed Yim by one stroke at the start of the day, struggled to a 76 that left her 10 strokes behind Sorenstam.

Going the other way was first-round co-leader Cristie Kerr. Bouncing back from Friday’s 75, she stormed into contention with a 65 that left her at 205. It all started off with a brilliant par save at her first hole, where Kerr sank a 20-foot putt in a steady rain.

“It gave me a lot of confidence because I didn’t really putt well yesterday,” she said.

Then, after being forced to the clubhouse by the second round of storms, Kerr came back to birdie five of six holes before the turn.

“I feel good about my chances,” she said. “I’ll have to shoot 8 or 9 under to win, but that’s how it goes.”

Divots: Maria Hjorth, tied for the lead after Thursday’s round, hasn’t come close to matching her opening 65. The Swede was at 5 under after back-to-back 73s. … Sorenstam also won the tournament in 2001, when it was a 54-hole event. She beat Sophie Gustafson in a playoff. … Sorenstam needs a 66 on Sunday to equal her 23-under score from a year ago.

AP-ES-04-22-06 2123EDT

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