PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Rory Sabbatini’s shot barely beat the buzzer.
Holding a two-stroke lead at the Honda Classic, the South African stepped to the tee at the treacherous par-three 17th hole and lofted his drive to the middle of the green, avoiding the lake that had been collecting balls all week.
Moments later a horn sounded, signaling a suspension of play because of lightning. As rain began falling harder, Sabbatini walked briskly to his ball and happily marked it before finding refuge in a van.
“I was pretty content to have it on the green at that time,” he said.
The tee shot left Sabbatini significantly closer to victory, and after a 28-minute delay he completed his march to the title, shooting an even-par 70 Sunday for a one-stroke win.
Y.E. Yang made it close, cutting a five-shot deficit to one in the span of seven holes. But Sabbatini birdied No. 16, then came through with a clutch par on 17.
While spectators wondered if Sabbatini would fold, Yang said he was actually the shakier player down the stretch.
“Usually if you’re in front, if you’re running away from somebody, you tend to be a bit nervous,” Yang said through an interpreter. “But in Rory’s case, apart from No. 14, he seemed really calm. I commend him for being I guess so emotionally stable. I wasn’t.”
Sabbatini sealed the title with a 2-foot par putt on No. 18 for a 72-hole total of 9-under 271. The resident of Fort Worth, Texas, earned his sixth PGA Tour victory and his first since the 2009 Byron Nelson Championship.
Yang, Honda’s 2009 winner, birdied the final hole for a closing 66 to finish 8 under. Jerry Kelly, who played with Sabbatini and Yang in the last threesome, shot a 67 and took third at 7 under.
“Rory did what he had to do to hold us off,” Kelly said, “and we just didn’t hit it good enough to make enough birdies.”
Lee Westwood shot a 70 for a 284 total and tied for 29th place, meaning Martin Kaymer will remain ranked No. 1. Westwood fell to No. 2 on Feb. 28 and needed a top-three finish to regain the top spot Monday.
Sabbatini is known for his fiery personality, outspoken nature and occasional digs at Tiger Woods, who skipped the event. But Sabbatini’s demeanor was even-keel from time he took the lead to stay on the front nine Saturday.
“I’m a passionate golfer,” he said. “I love the game of golf, and I’ve had my moments. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done out here, but I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to be a role model for my children, and I know as my wife has said to me, I wouldn’t want my son doing some of the things that I’ve done in the past.”
The Sabbatinis have three children ranging in age from 7 years to 5 1/2 months.
Kelly said he and Sabbatini are alike in that they’re hard on themselves when things aren’t going well.
“Rory gets in his own way an awful lot and rubs some people the wrong way,” Kelly said. “But he usually has the best intentions for everybody else around him.”
Sabbatini started the final round up by five shots, and after No. 8 the lead remained the same. But Yang closed to within one stroke thanks to birdies on Nos. 12 and 14 and two bogeys by Sabbatini.
Then came Nos. 15-17, the challenging water-laden stretch known as the Bear Trap. But there would be no collapse by the leader.
A change in putters before the tournament gave Sabbatini’s game a lift, and the new club came through again on No. 16. He sank a 16-foot birdie putt to go back up by two.
Sabbatini averaged 27 putts per rounds, which tied for second-best in the tournament.
“It’s actually quite bizarre – I’ve never quite had as much confidence in a new putter as I have in this one,” he said. “It was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made in my golf game.”