Sabbatini got his mistake out of the way early at the Bridgestone Invitational, settling down after a double bogey to salvage a 2-over 72 and build a one-shot lead over Woods, a five-time winner at Firestone.
Woods dropped out of a share for the lead with a bogey from the trees on the 18th hole, but he still managed a 69 and left himself a good chance to win this World Golf Championship for the third straight year.
'I tried to hang in there and not give any shots back,' Woods said.
Sabbatini was at 4-under 206, the highest score for a 54-hole leader at Firestone since it became a WGC event in 1999.
Kenny Perry had a 71 and was the only other player under par at 1-under 209. He will be in the final threesome Sunday, presumably playing the part of Switzerland.
Sabbatini and Woods verbally sparred this spring starting at the Wachovia Championship, where Woods rallied from one shot behind the spunky South African to win at Quail Hollow. Five days later, Sabbatini said he thought Woods looked 'as beatable as ever.' And while he said Woods can be scary when he's on his game, he liked 'the new Tiger' better.
Woods responded the next day by mentioning he had three victories in 2007, as many as Sabbatini had in his career.
What kind of fireworks will Sunday bring?
'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 when you're out there playing. He just verbalizes them.'
Sabbatini didn't back down, on the golf course and when he had finished his round with a 54-hole lead for the sixth time in his career. He mentioned he was 1-1 going against Woods in the final round, the most recent coming at Quail Hollow.
And the other time?
'NCAAs, final round. I beat him by five,' Sabbatini said proudly.
But didn't Woods win the NCAA title that year?
'He did, but I beat him in the final round,' Sabbatini said with a grin. 'So if I beat him by five tomorrow, I'm loving my chances.'
Whether it becomes a two-man race remains to be seen.
Ten players were separated by five shots going into the final round, and Masters champion Zach Johnson was among those who showed how quickly it can turn on a Firestone course that might be tougher than Southern Hills next week for the PGA Championship. He dropped six shots in two holes with a quadruple bogey-double bogey stretch that sent him to a 76.
Of the last three groups, Woods was the only player to break par. The other five players were 21 over par.
With storms in the forecast Sunday, the starting times have been moved up to the morning in threesomes with hopes of finishing. Rain might be the only thing to spare players from another grueling round.
The best anyone could do was a 67, one of those belonging to Aaron Baddeley. That put him in a tie for fourth at 1-over 211, a group that included Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan, who each had a 71; and Andres Romero, the 26-year-old from Argentina coming off his first European Tour victory last week in Germany.
'It so firm right now, you look at some of these pins and you just start to laugh,' Leonard said. 'But it's supposed to rain tomorrow, soften up a little bit. And if that happens, we might see some better scores.'
Big numbers figure to stick around regardless. Sabbatini got his early when his shot out of a fairway bunker clipped a tree and dropped into the deep rough, leaving him little chance of reaching the green. Joe Durant got his late.
'If you fall asleep for just a minute or two, it can bite you,' Durant said.
He fell asleep for two holes at the end of an otherwise solid round, and he had teeth marks. First came a three-putt bogey on the 17th when he missed a par putt from 20 inches, then a double bogey on the 18th during a journey through the trees for a 71.
No one suffered quite like Johnson.
The Masters champion was tied for the lead at 5 under par when his tee shot on the par-4 ninth went right into deep rough. He tried to hack out to the fairway, but the grass turned his club and the ball shot across into the left rough. From there he went into a bunker, then over the green. His wedge slid under the ball during a flop shot, moving it only a few feet. Another chip didn't reach the green. Johnson had to make a 4-footer to escape with a quadruple-bogey 8.
Then he took double bogey on the next hole, and went from leading to five shots behind.
'I tried to play safe every shot,' Johnson said. 'I tried to play the percentages on every single shot I hit. And I made a 4-footer for an 8. A good 8.'
Of the top five on the leaderboard going into the final round, everyone made double bogey except for Woods. He was more bothered by not making birdie, especially after missing chances inside 15 feet on his first three holes. But he finally made one from 10 feet on the fourth, and we he holed an 8-foot birdie at No. 6, he was tied for the lead.
He swapped birdies and bogeys the rest of the way, with one unusual par on the 13th. He hit his drive so far left that it went into the 14th fairway, which led to a blind shot over the trees into a bunker. He blasted out to 5 feet and made the putt.