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Bold Sabbatini ends big round with big talk

The outspoken South African ties for the TPC lead then says Tiger is "more beatable than ever."

By BOB HARIG
Published May 11, 2007


PONTE VEDRA BEACH - There was blustery wind, and then there was bluster. Deciding which was stronger at the TPC Sawgrass on Thursday would make for a good argument, but there was no denying Rory Sabbatini handled the breeze on the course before delivering his own hot air.

The outspoken golfer from South Africa who contended at the Masters last month and was in the final group with Tiger Woods on Sunday at the Wachovia Championship shot 5-under-par 67 to tie for the first-round lead at the Players Championship with Phil Mickelson.

It's rare that anybody takes top billing over Lefty, but Sabbatini managed to do so.

Known for several high-profile incidents in recent years concerning slow play and last weekend for his bravado in taking on Woods, Sabbatini was recently singled out in a Sports Illustrated poll of 71 PGA Tour members as the golfer most would least like to be paired with - 25 percent naming him, with the runnerup at 8 percent. Apparently, it didn't bother Sabbatini.

"I don't know 25 percent of the guys on tour, and there's probably 25 percent I wouldn't want to play golf with, " he said. "You can pick your battles, but I'm not out here to make friends, I'm out here to win golf tournaments."

Sabbatini, 31, may have just three victories, but he is not lacking in confidence.

When he shot 64 on Saturday to get into the final pairing with Woods, he welcomed the challenge, saying he wanted the opportunity to try to take down the world's No. 1-ranked player.

Even after shooting 74 and tying for third, he wasn't backing off.

"The funny thing is, after watching him play on Sunday, I think he's more beatable than ever, " said Sabbatini, who trails Woods in victories by 54. "I think there's a few fortuitous occasions out there that really changed the round for him. And realizing that gives me even more confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again."

Woods, for his part, struggled, shooting 75, with no birdies for the first time since the 2003 Masters.

Sabbatini had a solid day, making six birdies and one bogey despite hitting just nine of 18 greens in regulation. He and Mickelson led Chris DiMarco by a stroke, with Australia's Peter Lonard another shot back.

It was a continuation of some nice play of late for Sabbatini. He tied for second at the Masters with Woods, two strokes behind winner Zach Johnson. Two weeks ago he tied for third at the Byron Nelson Championship.

But he is known more for his brashness. Two years ago, Sabbatini was widely criticized after he walked ahead of playing partner Ben Crane, then chewed him out for slow play. Crane is a slow player, but Sabbatini was booed by spectators and rebuked by television analyst Nick Faldo.

It just so happened that Sabbatini and the six-time major winner were paired for the first two rounds of last year's Players Championship. Sabbatini likes to play fast, and Faldo is more deliberate. Sabbatini's wife, Amy, added to the tension by wearing a T-shirt that read, "Keep Up."

Faldo used the opportunity to crack wise afterward: "I think it's very embarrassing for them to bring their sexual problems to the golf course. Poor fellow. I thought he had enough problems as it is without announcing them to the world."

Sabbatini has had his share of problems at this event, making the cut just once in seven previous appearances, with only one score in the 60s before Thursday.

Bob Harig can be reached at harig@sptimes.com or 727 893-8806.

Leaderboard

Players Championship

Rory Sabbatini 67 -5

Phil Mickelson 67 -5

Chris DiMarco 68 -4

Peter Lonard 69 -3

Tom Lehman 70 -2

Rod Pampling 70 -2

Carl Pettersson 70 -2

Jason Gore 70 -2

Notables

Jim Furyk 71 -1

Vijay Singh 74 2

Tiger Woods 75 3

Today-Sunday

TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach. TV: 1 to 7 today, Golf Channel. Weather: High 83, low 67, with a 30 percent chance for rain.