AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Rory Sabbatini gets his rubber match in the Rubber City.
Sabbatini, one of the few players bold enough to call out Tiger Woods, gave himself another shot at the world’s No. 1 player by getting his double bogey out of the way early Saturday and closing with nine straight pars for a 2-over 72 in the Bridgestone Invitational.
That gave the spunky South African a one-shot lead over Woods, and another chance to go head-to-head in the final group. Kenny Perry will fill out the threesome, perhaps as the referee if not a contender.
“I think it’s going to be a stormy day altogether,” Sabbatini said with a smirk, a reference to nasty weather in the forecast that pushed up the starting times Sunday, and memories of his verbal sparring with Woods this spring.
He was at 4-under 206, the highest 54-hole score to lead at Firestone since it became a World Golf Championship in 1999.
Woods did his part. Despite a bogey from the trees on the 18th hole, the five-time champion at Firestone had a 1-under 69 — the other five players in the final three groups were 21 over par — and was one shot behind, leaving him a good chance to win the Bridgestone Invitational for the third straight year.
“Obviously, Rory is full of confidence,” Woods said. “He believes in what he can do, and there’s a lot to be said for that. You’ve got to believe in what you can do out there. I’ve got to go out there and do my business, and I’m sure he’ll probably do the same.”
Sabbatini also had a one-shot lead over Woods at the Wachovia Championship, and said he wanted him in the final group. Woods shot 69 in the final round, while Sabbatini closed with a 74.
The stunner came four days later when Sabbatini said Woods looked “beatable as ever.” Woods returned the volley a day later by noting he already had won three times in 2007, as many victories as Sabbatini had in his career.
Sabbatini won a few weeks after that exchange at Colonial, and he’s not one to back down. And he made it clear Saturday evening that he has a longer history with Woods than most people realize.
He mentioned that he was 1-1 against Woods while playing with him in the final round.
Everyone remembers Wachovia, but what was the other time?
“NCAAs, final round. I beat him by five,” Sabbatini said proudly.
That would be in 1996 at The Honors Course in Tennessee, when Woods played his final year at Stanford as a sophomore. Woods won the NCAA title that year by closing with an 80 to beat Sabbatini by four shots. Sabbatini, who played at Arizona, shot 75.
“He did, but I beat him in the final round,” Sabbatini said with a grin. “So if I beat him by five tomorrow, I’m loving my chances.”
The trick is to beat Firestone, and the best hope is for rain.
The course was dry and firm, with thick rough and hard greens — the nastiest combination in golf. And it showed on the leaderboard, where only three players remained under par and Woods was the only player among the top five on the leaderboard going into the final round who managed to avoid a double bogey or worse.
Masters champion Zach Johnson was the best example of how quickly Firestone can punish even the best players. He was tied for the lead until dropping six shots in two holes, including a quadruple bogey on the ninth hole. He finished with a 76.
The best anyone could do was a 67. One of those belonged to Aaron Baddeley and put him in a tie for fourth at 1-over 211. He joined a group that included Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan, who each had a 71; and Andres Romero, the 26-year-old from Argentina coming off his first European Tour victory last week in Germany.
“You look at some of these pins and you just start to laugh,” Leonard said. “But it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, soften up a little bit. And if that happens, we might see some better scores.”
Big numbers figure to stick around regardless. Sabbatini got his early when his shot out of a fairway bunker clipped a tree and dropped into the deep rough, leaving him little chance of reaching the green.
No one struggled quite like Johnson, who went from right rough to left rough, from the bunker to over the green, then needed three shots to move the ball some 20 feet onto the putting surface, where he made a 4-footer for 8.
“I tried to play the percentages on every single shot I hit. And I made a 4-footer for an 8,” Johnson said. “A good 8.”
Woods was more bothered by not making birdie, especially after missing chances inside 15 feet on his first three holes. But he finally made one from 10 feet on the fourth, and we he holed an 8-foot birdie at No. 6, he was tied for the lead.
He swapped birdies and bogeys the rest of the way, with one unusual par on the 13th. He hit his drive so far left that it went into the 14th fairway, which led to a blind shot over the trees into a bunker. He blasted out to 5 feet and made the putt.
Sabbatini had birdie chances along the back nine, but he holed several par putts from the 5-foot range to keep his name atop the leaderboard and set up a final round that should be entertaining, and another chance for him to back up his brash talk.
There’s a part of Woods that admires his attitude, noting that a lot of players think as Sabbatini does, but not everyone says it.
Sabbatini put it all into perspective.
“Tiger has done a lot to deserve all the respect he has,” he said. “But you can only let it go so far before you’re just standing there watching him play instead of being out there competing. I’m not a person that’s going to sit there and watch.”