PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The wind was strong enough to knock branches from palm trees and keep Tiger Woods without a birdie on his card for the first time in four years. It really got blustery when Rory Sabbatini completed a 5-under 67 Thursday to share the first-round lead with Phil Mickelson at The Players Championship.
Sabbatini, a pint-sized South African, is not short on confidence, even after calling out Woods last week and losing to him.
“I think he’s more beatable than ever,” Sabbatini said.
(Mickelson tees off today at 1:44, Sabbatini at 1:33, and Woods at 12:51. Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen are on the course now. Click here for updated scores and all tee times.)
In a grueling start on the refurbished TPC Sawgrass, where gusts reached 39 mph and made the island green look even more terrifying, Woods wasn’t much of a threat to anyone. He had only four good looks at birdie, three-putted three times and had to save par from 90 feet behind the green on his final hole for a 3-over 75, matching his highest score at The Players.
It was his first round without a birdie since the opening round of the 2003 Masters.
“The greens are a little bit tricky to read,” Woods said. “Different grain out there than we’re used to, and I had a tougher time than the guys at the top of the board.”
Mickelson had no problem. In his third week working with swing coach Butch Harmon, he birdied the first two holes and held it together with a nifty par save from an awkward slope around the seventh green to join Sabbatini at 67.
Chris DiMarco, winless in five years and now coping with a bum shoulder, shot 68 for his best round of the year. Peter Lonard was 3 under. Only 16 players broke par, and Retief Goosen had the only bogey-free round.
The famed par-3 17th played extremely tough, with 50 balls landing in the water. It broke the single-round tournament record of 45 set in 2000.
As co-leaders, Sabbatini and Mickelson represent a contrast in many ways, particularly their attitude toward the world’s No. 1 player. Mickelson said this week that he relishes competing against Woods, and he has beaten him a fair amount, including three majors.
But he also realizes that he can never match Woods’ record of 57 tour victories and 12 majors.
Sabbatini shows no fear, and is one of the few players who openly invites a chance to take on Woods – even after last week at the Wachovia Championship, where Sabbatini had a one-shot lead until closing with a 74 to Woods’ 69.
Sabbatini said he wanted Woods in the final group every week. Told that Woods opened with a 75, Sabbatini said, “I want him to pick it up and we’ll be up there late on Sunday.”
Sabbatini, with three PGA Tour victories and a runner-up finish (with Woods) at the Masters last month, did his part. He chipped in for birdie on the 18th hole (he started at No. 10) for a rare birdie, and he was the only player among early starters to reach 6 under until dropping his only shot on No. 7, when he found a greenside bunker.
His obsession with Woods dates to a year ago, when Sabbatini won the Nissan Open. Woods withdrew on the weekend with the flu, although he was never in contention. Even so, Sabbatini said he had heard whispers that his victory at Riviera didn’t mean much because Woods wasn’t around, and he was eager to prove himself last week.
“When people play with Tiger, they stand and watch the show and not participate,” Sabbatini said. “I’m not someone to watch the show. I’m there to participate and win. I want to be paired with Tiger in the last group on Sunday here this week.”
Sabbatini has been brash before. He was so irritated by the slow pace of Ben Crane at a tournament two years ago that he walked off the green in protest. When he was paired with Nick Faldo at The Players last year, his wife wore a shirt that read, “Keep Up.”
But the timing of Thursday’s remarks were odd. Woods beat him by five shots last Sunday at Quail Hollow, and the world’s No. 1 player has won nine of his last 12 starts on the PGA Tour.
What makes him so beatable?
“I’ve seen Tiger when he hits the ball well,” Sabbatini said. “And I’ve seen Tiger when there’s not a facet of his game that you’re not amazed. But I think Sunday, he struggled out there. He had to battle for that win. And I think that made me realize … he’s as beatable as ever. I’ve seen him when he figures it out. It’s scary. I don’t want to see that anymore. I like the new Tiger.”
Woods was long gone after Sabbatini’s comments, and he didn’t have much of an explanation.
The Stadium Course might look the same – that green on No. 17 is still an island – but the grass is now Bermuda because of a move to May, and Woods relies heavily on his memory to read greens. He felt these were different, and it showed.
He didn’t hit too many wild shots, but he rarely hit the ball terribly close. He three-putted No. 16 for par, three-putted from the front of the green on No. 4 for bogey and added another three-putt bogey on No. 8.
“I had three three-putts today, and consequently 3-over par,” Woods said. “Just got to make a few more putts.”
It was a relatively quiet day for Mickelson, once he got by the 17th. He hit six balls in a practice round before hitting the island green, and he was as nervous as anyone standing on the tee. The wind was blowing hard into the players, yet there were brief moments when it would shift and blow sideways.
His 8-iron landed in the rough on the right side of the green, next to a sprinkler. He took a drop, made his par, and off he went. Mickelson is not shaping the ball as much as he used to, and it has taken him time to get comfortable aiming between the ropes. And he sometimes has tried to alter his swing to account for so much wind.
“I felt very good today,” he said. “I hit a lot of good shots in some strong winds and was able to keep the ball in control. My misses were very small, and that allowed me to take a lot of the big trouble out of play that I had found in the past.”