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Stewart slips in clutch at Honda

The Masters may not rank high on Payne Stewart's major championship scale, but there is no question he wants to get to the first major championship of the year next month.

After all, you can't win the tournament if you aren't entered, and Stewart hasn't earned an invitation.

The two-time major championship winner saw a beautiful opportunity slip from his grasp Sunday at the Honda Classic, where Stewart had a trip to Augusta, Ga., all but secured, only to squander it to little-known Stuart Appleby.

Stewart led by two shots on the back nine at the TPC-Heron Bay, but some sloppy play and a chip-in for an eagle by Appleby altered the travel plans for both.

When the 36-hole day was over, it was Appleby holding his first PGA Tour trophy and Stewart who was left to wonder where it all went wrong.

"The golf tournament was mine to win and I didn't do that," said Stewart, whose 18th-hole birdie left him one shot short.

Appleby, 25, is a native of Australia who lives in Orlando. This is his second year on the PGA Tour; his best finish was a tie for ninth earlier this year in Hawaii.

He shot 67 and 71 Sunday to complete the 72-hole tournament at 14-under 274. He earned $270,000 from the $1.5-million purse. Stewart tied for second with Brandon's Michael Bradley, who missed a birdie putt on No.

18 that would have forced a playoff.

Bradley, who shot 73 in the morning round, started the afternoon with three straight birdies. He stayed close all day, including saving par with a 25-foot putt at the 17th. He gave himself a chance at the 18th, hitting a 7-iron approach to 25 feet.

"I started it a little right and I thought it was too much," said Bradley, 30, who earned $132,000. "But it dove at the end and barely missed."

That left Appleby a winner for the first time.

"It's never easy to win," said Appleby, who earned a two-year PGA Tour exemption and a trip to the Masters. "There's too many good players that will run you down. With this sort of scattering of a tournament, it's hard. Each winner is very fortunate.

"The first thing you think about is just winning, all the years of practicing. The extras come later. To win in my second year out on tour is awesome."

Appleby's good fortune came at the par-5 14th hole, where his eagle and Stewart's inability to make birdie changed the tournament.

Stewart had built a two-shot advantage when he birdied the ninth hole. He followed bogey at the 10th with another birdie. Things began to unravel, however, when he missed a short par putt at the 12th.

He still was two shots ahead of Appleby at the par-5 14th, but failed to make birdie from just in front of the green. Appleby hit a 65-yard sand wedge from the rough that hit on the fringe and rolled into the cup.

Appleby birdied the 16th hole, and when Stewart bogeyed the 17th, he was two shots back.

Stewart, 40, is coming off Dec.

31 elbow surgery and was playing in just his third event of the year. He has won nine PGA Tour events, but just once since his 1991 U.S. Open victory.

His five-year Masters exemption for winning the Open has expired, and without a victory last year or a finish among the top 30 money winners, Stewart's only way to Augusta is to win between now and April 10.

Earlier in the week, Stewart said, "I don't eat, drink and breathe Augusta I don't rank it high on my list." Nonetheless "I want dearly to play the Masters," Stewart said. "You can't win the Grand Slam if you don't win Augusta. But winning is my sole obsession. The things that come with winning _ getting into the Masters, the World Series _ those are the benefits of winning. That's what I want to do out here.

"I feel like I'm playing well. I'm not going to hold my head and feel sorry for myself."

NOTES: Safety Harbor's John Huston and Clearwater's Greg Kraft cost themselves a bundle ofmoney. Huston was a shot out of the lead when the third round began and Kraft was two back.

But both shot 72-76 in the 36-hole final. Huston tied for 26th and earned $11,325. Kraft tied for 30th and earned $9,315.

A par round in the afternoon for Huston would have meant the difference of about $30,000. For Kraft, that score would brought him another $15,000.