Sabbatini Stays in Control at Riviera

Saturday, February 18th 2006, 10:29 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Even with a four-shot lead in the Nissan Open, Rory Sabbatini is far from satisfied. Never mind that he is playing some of his best golf this year and that his name is on the leaderboard just about every week. Or that Sabbatini shot a 4-under 67 on Saturday and never let anyone get close to him. Not long after his 9-iron plopped down 5 feet from the cup for a birdie on the final hole, he already had a plan for the final round.

``I think I might switch my irons out and go back to my old set,'' he said. ``I don't feel like I'm hitting the ball well.''

The last challenge for Sabbatini might be overcoming the crowd.

The gallery was in full force on a surprisingly sunny afternoon off Sunset Boulevard, cheering for one of the most popular players at Riviera. No, it wasn't Tiger Woods. He didn't even show up Saturday, withdrawing after a week of battling the flu and narrowly making the cut.

They flocked to Fred Couples, a two-time winner at Riviera who overcame a nasty head cold earlier in the week for a 6-under 65 to get into the final group with Sabbatini and Craig Barlow (67).

Sabbatini was at 14-under 199.

``If I can play a really good round, I can catch Rory,'' Couples said. ``If he plays well, we're all done.''

Clearly, it all depends on Sabbatini, who might be the hottest player on the PGA Tour with two second-place finishes this year and nothing worse than a tie for 20th. Right when a couple of players were closing in on his lead, he ran off three straight birdies, then padded his lead one extra stroke with a birdie on the 18th.

He was asked if he had ever switched irons in the last round with a four-shot lead.

``I haven't had too many four-shot leads,'' Sabbatini said. ``I felt like I left a lot of shots out there.''

Barlow played in the final group five years ago at Riviera and trailed by three shots. He closed with a 73 and tied for 13th, three shots out of a playoff. Now he faces a four-shot deficit against a guy who appears to do nothing wrong.

``He's going to be the favorite tomorrow,'' Barlow said. ``But a four-shot lead is never too much to make up.''

Dean Wilson made the biggest charge with five birdies on his first 11 holes to get within two shots, but then he three-putted two holes in a row _ for double bogey and bogey _ and wound up with 69, seven shots behind.

Still, the roars belonged to Couples, one of the most popular figures in golf, especially at Riviera.

During a seven-year stretch in the '90s, Couples won twice and was runner-up three other times. This is his 25th consecutive year playing the Nissan Open, and he never could have guessed he would be in the final group Sunday.

Couples was so sick that he stayed in bed Monday and Tuesday, and skipped the pro-am Wednesday. He managed to open with a 66, got caught in the rain during his round of 72 on Friday and then turned it on Saturday in chilly sunshine, running off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine.

``The first day was a fluke,'' Couples said. ``Today, I was finally sharp and made a lot of putts. I've been playing here 25 years, so I have a feel for the course.''

Woods never made it to the first tee. He was battling the flu all week, and after narrowly making the cut on Friday, decided to withdraw. More than 1,000 people around the 10th tee let out a collective groan when the starter announced that Woods was not playing, and they scattered across Riviera in search of someone to watch.

Most of them found Couples.

``I did get some of his strays,'' Couples said. ``The way I play sometimes, I probably don't deserve two or three people out there.''

Saturday was not one of those days, and Couples is starting to believe he's capable of another win.

Sabbatini, however, has not shown any signs that he could give back the lead. He sputtered at the start, opening with six pars but reminding himself of a four-shot lead. Then came a 15-foot birdie on the seventh hole, and he took off at the turn with a chip to 3 feet on the 310-yard 10th, reaching the 11th green in two for a two-putt birdie, and a 5-iron into 12 feet on the 12th that allowed him to regain control.

A victory would be a great chance for Sabbatini to take focus off his behavior last year at the Booz Allen Classic, where he became so fed up with the slow play of Ben Crane that he finished playing the 17th hole before Crane even reached the green.

To slow down, Sabbatini has been keeping his own yardage and found himself a little more at peace. He even played Pebble Beach last week, the tournament known for its six-hour rounds.

He doesn't care how long it takes to play Sunday, just as long as he holds his position.