Sabbatini Leads at Firestone

By Associated PressAugust 3, 2007, 4:00 pm
WGC-Bridgestone - 125wAKRON, Ohio -- Rory Sabbatini is taking all bets that par golf on the weekend at Firestone will pay him $1.35 million.
 
Sabbatini continued to make a difficult golf course look like a breeze Friday, running off three straight birdies toward the end of his round for another 3-under 67 and a two-shot lead over Masters champion Zach Johnson in the Bridgestone Invitational.
 
What appeared to be a tuneup for the final major of the season next week at the PGA Championship is starting to look like it might be an even tougher test. Sabbatini was at 6-under 134, with only seven other players able to break par.
 
Five-time champion Tiger Woods was one of them after an even-par 70 in which he had no complaints until reaching the green. He made only two birdies despite hitting 15 greens in regulation, and those were wiped out by a pair of three-putts from about 35 feet in which he left the first putt some 8 feet short of the hole.
 
'They looked fast, but for some reason they putted a little bit slower than I thought they did (Thursday),' Woods said. 'I just had a hard time making the adjustment.'
 
He was at 138 along with Scott Verplank (68) and Kenny Perry, who had his second straight 69.
 
Someone asked Sabbatini if two more rounds at 67 would be good enough to win, and the spunky South African was almost speechless.
 
'On the weekend?' he said. 'I'd take that with that $1.35 million in a heartbeat. If I shoot 12 under, I'm winning. There's no doubt in my mind. The way I look at it, I'd take even money right now shooting even par on the weekend. The course is only going to get tougher.'
 
For once, not many could argue with him.
 
Johnson and Davis Love III had the best round of the tournament at 65, proving that it could be done. Love wound up in the group at 139 that included Lee Westwood and Chris DiMarco.
 
Johnson attributed his score to hitting fairways and making a bunch of putts, his recipe for winning at Augusta National. Indeed, the greens felt as quick as they are at the Masters, although Johnson had another major on his mind.
 
'Some of the guys were joking around at lunch that this is one of those courses where if the U.S. Open needed an emergency course, I think you could probably come here within a week's time,' he said.
 
Paul Casey and Hunter Mahan, who shared the first-round lead with Sabbatini, both sputtered. Mahan didn't make a birdie until the final hole in his round of 73, while Casey got hung up in the rough on the 18th on his way to a double bogey to also shoot 73. They were at 140.
 
Sabbatini was headed in that direction, especially after finding the rough left of the 14th fairway and taking bogey. But he holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 15th, wisely laid up on the 16th and made a 15-foot birdie putt, then hit an 8-iron up the hill on the 17th to about 12 feet right of the pin for this third straight birdie.
 
'It's a matter of picking and choosing your targets out there,' he said. 'There are opportunities you have that you can be aggressive, but you have to kind of back down and just give the course respect. Otherwise, it'll hit you pretty quick.'
 
No need to explain that to Sergio Garcia.
 
Playing for the first time since losing the British Open in a playoff, Garcia was at even par for his round when he made the turn at the 18th hole and paid dearly for a risky shot.
 
He tried to go through a cluster of trees from the left rough, heard it smack a tree, but he never saw where the ball wound up. His group searched 5 minutes for it before the ball was declared lost, a two-shot penalty, and Garcia had to return to the rough. The next one went over the green, over a cement path and next to a villa.
 
Garcia was given a free drop, but chipped short of the green and missed a 6-foot putt to take quadruple-bogey 8. He wound up with a 77, leaving him 14 shots behind.
 
Woods didn't do anything that outrageous, although he must have felt like banging his head against the putter. He missed four birdie putts inside 12 feet and wound up with 33 putts for the round. Walking toward the 14th tee, he muttered to caddie Steve Williams that he should have figured the greens out by then -- he had just left a 35-foot putt some 6 feet short, making that for par.
 
The grind at this World Golf Championship would seem to be the perfect way to prepare for Southern Hills next week.
 
Or maybe not.
 
'It just gets to the point where every course is a long, long golf course with deep, deep rough,' Love said. 'You can't get away with very much and you have to be right on perfect. You miss a fairway, you're hard-pressed to get it back on the green. They keep lengthening courses that are already long. It's just tough.
 
'We see the same basic thing week after week after week. And it's very, very tough on you mentally.'
 
The good news in northern Ohio is it might be slightly cooler.
 
It should be no surprise that Johnson found the conditions to his liking. It stirred memories of the Masters, which was firm and fast and made him pay attention to keeping the ball in play. And lightning-quick greens seem to suit him.
 
'Augusta ... my game plan really was pretty obvious,' Johnson said. 'I've got to hit my driver solid and get it in the fairway, just like it is here, and then putt well. I guess for the most part, I tend to putt pretty well on fast greens.'
 
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