OBSCURE names joined by familiar ones, including record-setting Appleby

Friday, May 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

POTOMAC, Md. (AP) _ The day's early leader was Lee Porter, who told strange stories of his world travels in an effort to put together a golf career.

Later came J.J. Henry, who is nearly as obscure as Rich Beem was two years ago. Then Chris DiMarco, who got his first 15 minutes of fame when he came from nowhere to lead this year's Masters at the midway point.

But Thursday's first round of the Kemper Insurance Open, a tournament known as a springboard for emerging players, wasn't reserved solely for the little-knowns. Porter, DiMarco, Henry and Co. were soon joined on the leaderboard by Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Frank Nobilo and _ after a record string of birdies _ 1998 Kemper champion Stuart Appleby .

Appleby set a tournament record with six consecutive birdies in a 6-under-par round of 65 that tied him for the lead with DiMarco and Henry. Porter, Nobilo and Bob Estes were one stroke back, with O'Meara two off the lead and headliner Mickelson three back after another woeful day with the putter.

``It's not a thrill _ a thrill is winning the tournament,'' said Appleby, who birdied holes 12 through 17 after starting on the back nine. ``It's like leading after five laps at the Indy, and you spin out at the next turn and you're done. You can't count your chickens on that one.''

Appleby secured the record with short putts after pinpoint iron shots, an essential combination on a soft TPC at Avenel course. The ugly rough wasn't as threatening because the ball wasn't rolling long on the fairway, and recent rains allowed the players to lift, clean and place their fairway shots, resulting in perfect lies every time.

But the greens were bumpy in the afternoon, and that caused havoc with players such Mickelson, whose 3-putt from 8 feet at the 15th was one of several tough moments that cost him at least a share of the lead.

``I felt like I threw quite a few shots away on the greens, but I played well to shoot 3-under,'' Mickelson said. ``Unfortunately, for as well as I played, I probably didn't score as well as I should have.''

Fighting back spasms that nearly forced him to withdraw, Porter nice a new par save after his tee shot landed on a cart path at the 16th and lost the lead with his only bogey at the 18th. The 35-year-old North Carolina native then discussed a career that has included membership in the Asian, Canadian, South American and European tours. He ranked Calcutta, India, as ``probably the worst place to play.''

``The ponds on the golf course, the water's so dirty you can't see the golf balls in the bottom of it,'' Porter said. ``There's people in there bathing and brushing their teeth while you're out there playing.''

Henry's big travel story involved the less exotic locale of Richmond, Va. The rookie from Texas Christian was disappointed when he wasn't in the field for last week's Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, but he passed up moping and opted instead for the Buy.com event in the Virginia capital.

``It was a reality check,'' Henry said. ``I didn't worry about shots, just took one shot at a time. And really that's what's been holding me back this year. I kind of live and die by every shot as opposed to going out and having fun.''

Henry said he is inspired by the Kemper's growing legacy of producing first-time winners, including Beem two years ago and Tom Scherrer last year.

``Who knows?'' said Henry, whose best finish is a tie for 27th at the Buick Invitational in February. ``This tournament, in a way it's got to be rewarding to rookies, looking back at who's won the last couple of years. You've had numerous first-time winners here. It's got to be in the back of your mind, something positive to feed off of.''

At the other end of the spectrum was O'Meara, the double majors winner in 1998 who is playing his first tournament since his mother died three weeks ago. He birdied the last two holes to finish at 4-under.

``There were some times I was thinking out there on the golf course that I need to stay focused and positive because that's what my Mom would want me to do,'' O'Meara said. ``All of us in life go through these little tragedies, and you've just got to hang in there.''