CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rory Sabbatini holed out for eagle from the first fairway and picked up even more ground with a birdie on the final hole on a thrilling Saturday at the Wachovia Championship, giving him a share of the course record with an 8-under 64 and a final pairing he wanted with Tiger Woods.
For those who miss the excitement once found at the Augusta National, this was the place to be.
Sabbatini, Vijay Singh and Arron Oberholser all made eagle from the fairway, and players jockeyed for position along the back nine with an array of birdies that brought Quail Hollow to life on a gray afternoon of light rain.
And there was one more comparison worthy of the Masters — Woods took bogey on his final two holes and had to settle for a 68, knocking him out of the lead, just as he did in the third round at the Masters last month.
But he wasn’t alone dropping shots at the end of a wild round.
Phil Mickelson challenged for the lead until a peculiar decision to hit a hybrid from thick grass on the slope above a creek, hitting into the water to take double bogey on the 18th. Oberholser was tied for the lead until his fairway bunker shot found the creek on the 18th, and he finished with a double bogey.
Singh nearly went into the creek, then rolled up his pants to his knees to stand in the water and play out of the hazard. He nearly escaped with par, but his 45-foot putt cruelly caught the left edge of the cup.
When it ended in darkness brought on by a two-hour delay, it left thousands of fans eager to return for the final round.
Sabbatini was at 11-under 205 and will be in the final group with Woods, who saved bogey from the creek and was one shot behind. The spunky South African won at Riviera two years ago and heard murmurs that it wasn’t that great of a victory because Woods had withdrawn on the weekend with the flu.
“He’s here this week — best opportunity I’ve had to put any of that criticism or doubt aside,” Sabbatini said.
Singh roared to life with a birdie-birdie-eagle start to his back nine, and wound up with a 69 and was at 207. He will be paired with Oberholser, who had a 69.
Steve Stricker shot 66 and was at 208 with Ken Duke (68).
Mickelson, who chipped in for eagle on the par-5 fifth, was still in the hunt after a 68 put him four shots behind.
Some thought the Masters was dull this year after a convergence of firm conditions, cold weather and wicked wind on the weekend that kept birdies at a minimum and the crowd quiet.
The Wachovia Championship has all the trappings of a major, and it certainly sounded like one Saturday. Even in dour weather, pockets of cheers resounded across Quail Hollow throughout the day, and the ever-changing leaderboard added to the thrills.
“There was a sense of Augusta because typically this is a golf course where there’s a lot of people out there and … you’re fairly close, so you can hear everything that’s going on,” Sabbatini said. “There were a lot of big roars. It was a fun day of golf.”
Sabbatini led off the show by holing out from 72 yards on the first hole for eagle to quickly surge into a share of the lead, and staying there most of the afternoon. Then came Oberholser, holing out for eagle on the third hole from 146 yards to briefly take the lead.
Mickelson chipped in for eagle on the fifth hole and Carl Petterson did the same on the 10th.
“We’ve heard a lot of roars today — I mean, a lot of big roars,” Stricker said. “I didn’t know who was doing it, but obviously, there were some great shots.”
The biggest might have come from Singh.
From the first cut on the right side of the 12th fairway, 161 yards from the hole, he had to bend his shot slightly around a tree line and twisted his body, trying to get a look at the elevated green. He really didn’t need to see anything — the crowd noise told him everything.
The ball banged into the back of the cup and settled at the bottom, thrusting Singh into a share of the lead.
Woods was the only one who didn’t do anything spectacular, although the cheers for eagles — especially Singh’s shot – brought him to life with four birdies in a five-hole stretch that put him atop the leaderboard at 12 under.
After Singh repaired the cup from his eagle, Woods holed a 12-foot birdie putt to join a four-way tie for the lead. Then came a 12-foot birdie on the 14th, and after hitting into the rough on the par-5 15th, he holed an 18-foot birdie to take the outright lead.
The key was to finish the round before darkness and to avoid bogeys.
At least they finished.
Divots: Five players had at least a share of the lead Saturday, although J.B. Holmes made only a brief visit. He went out in 31, but two double bogeys on the back nine sent him to a 40. … Trevor Immelman made eight birdies in his round of 68. … The tour moved the tees up 40 yards on the eighth hole, making it play just over 300 yards to tempt players to go for the green. It caused a backup that stretched to the fifth tee.