AKRON — There’s no backing down when it comes to Rory Sabbatini.
The South African golfer, who caused an uproar when he said Tiger Woods was “as beatable as ever” earlier this season, held onto a one-stroke lead over Woods heading into today’s final round of the Bridgestone Invitational, and plans on finishing the job this time.
“The way I look at it is Tiger is the two-time defending champion here,” Sabbatini said. “He’s won five times here. Somebody has to knock him down, you know? So maybe (today) is my day.”
Sabbatini held a one-stroke lead and was grouped in the final pairing of the final round with Woods at the Wachovia tournament on May 6. Woods pounded out a 3-under 69 while Sabbatini imploded for a 74, though Sabbatini was quick to point out that Woods’ victory just evened their head-to-head series.
“I’ve played with Tiger twice now in final rounds in major competition, and I’m 1-1 against him,” Sabbatini said. “So I’ve got a 50-50 chance.”
When pressed about the other time he squared off against the superstar, Sabbatini said: “NCAAs, final round … I beat him by five.”
He then added, “on his course, Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
A puzzled reporter then reminded the University of Arizona star that he finished as the NCAA runner-up in 1996 to the Stanford standout.
“He did (beat me), but I beat him in the final round,” Sabbatini said. “So if I beat him by five (today), I’m loving my chances.”
Woods doesn’t seem fazed by Sabbatini or his remarks.
“He’s trying to obviously think of ways to motivate himself,” Woods said. “A lot of guys don’t really externalize it. We all say things like that inside, and he’s just trying to gain any kind of edge mentally.”
Sabbatini said he believes he’s going to win the tournament, and losing to Woods in the same scenario earlier this season didn’t really rattle him.
“At Wachovia, I wasn’t disappointed because even though I was in a good position, I had been struggling all week with my ball striking — I had been grinding it out,” Sabbatini said. “It’s just inevitable that you can only go so long before it catches up to you, and it just happened to catch up to me on the final day.”
Sabbatini had matching 67s in the first two rounds of the Bridgestone, then opened with a double-bogey 6 Saturday. He then made a pair of birdies and a pair of bogeys before parring the final nine holes. He finished with a 2-over 72 and is 4 under for the tournament.
Kenny Perry is two strokes behind Woods at 1 under, and a group of seven golfers — including Justin Leonard, Chris DeMarco and Stuart Appleby — are tied for fourth at 1 over.
“You know what? I’m still quite a few behind, but you know if you can go out there and somehow shoot a 67,” said Perry, who must have immediately come to his senses after making such an “outlandish” statement. “I don’t know — this golf course is just mean. It really is.
“It’s a very severe test.”
The brutality of the course was the hot topic as golfers limped off the course looking as if they had been run through a gauntlet.
“This is as difficult as anything we’ve played this year,” said Joe Durant, who shot 71 to fall to 2 over. “A couple courses on the Florida swing were difficult because it was so windy, but it hasn’t been windy at all this week. Had it been windy, I would be scared to think what the scores would be like.”
The group of golfers that have shot par or better has shrunk each day. Woods was the only player in the top 20 heading into the third round to break par Saturday.
The Firestone Country Club’s South Course also managed to bury some of the biggest names in golf during the third round.
Phil Mickelson, still feeling the effects of a wrist injury suffered earlier in the season, struggled through a round of 74 — highlighted by a triple bogey on No. 13 — to raise his total to 10 over for the tournament, Ernie Els had five bogeys en route to a 72 that put him at 9 over and Vijay Singh shot 75 to push his total to 11 over.
Most of the golfers singled out the rough as being the top culprit as to why the course was playing so tough.
“At the beginning of the week I didn’t think the rough was that crazy, but the more you hit it in there, you realize how thick that stuff really is,” said Justin Rose, whose 71 dropped him to 2 over. “A couple times today I assessed the lie, I thought I had a chance to chase it out there 100 yards and hit it like 10 yards.
“The rough is really, really thick.”
Sabbatini, Woods and Perry, who seem to have had the least amount of trouble with the long Kentucky bluegrass, will tee off together today at 10:10 a.m. on No. 1. Asked who he’d want to play with in the final group if he had his choice, Sabbatini answered: “It would be Tiger.”
“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.”
Asked directly if Sabbatini’s comments fire him up, Woods gave a trademark grin and simply said: “I feel like I’ve had a pretty good record in my past.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or email@example.com.