Fred Couples, a two-time winner here, fired a 65 in the third round and that helped him jump into tie for second place at 10-under-par 203. He was joined there by Craig Barlow, who shot 67 on Saturday.
The big story on Saturday was the withdrawal of Tiger Woods. For the first time in his professional career, Woods withdrew from a PGA Tour event for health reasons. He was one of several players this week battling the flu. Woods had won both of his starts this season -- the Buick Invitational on the PGA Tour and the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour.
The Nissan Open has long been a nemesis for Woods, who has never won this tournament. He played this event twice as an amateur and this was his ninth start at Riviera Country Club as a professional. This marks the most starts at any PGA event without a win for Woods.
Sabbatini was steady to start his round with six straight pars. At the seventh, he sank a 4-foot birdie putt to move three clear of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman and Dean Wilson.
The 29-year-old Sabbatini saved par on the eighth and did the same on No. 9, but his lead over Wilson dipped to one stroke. The South African caught fire around the turn though.
Sabbatini got up and down for birdie on the 10th. He then two-putted for birdie at the next to move three clear of the field at minus-13.
He made it three in a row as he ran home a 22-foot birdie try on 12. Sabbatini could not get up and down for par at the next though, but still led Couples by three.
Sabbatini, who owns two PGA Tour wins, parred his next four holes. At the last, he dropped his second shot within 6 feet and made the birdie putt to finish four ahead of the field.
'I got off to a slow start, but I played solidly,' said Sabbatini, who leads after three rounds of a PGA Tour event for the third time. 'I had some opportunities that I did not convert. However, from the seventh hole on, I got things going a little bit. It was just a matter of staying patient out there, knowing the putts would eventually drop.'
Couples, who won this event in 1990 and 1992, birdied the first, but tripped to a bogey at the next. He birdied the par-3 sixth to move to minus-5.
The 46-year-old birdied four of five holes from the 10th to fly up the leaderboard. Couples dropped in a birdie effort on the par-5 17th to get to 10 under.
'Today was a day where I hit a lot of good shots and made a lot of putts,' said Couples, who is playing this event for the 25th time and has 11 top-10 finishes here. 'It helps to know not to miss in certain spots. I've got to play well tomorrow for sure.'
Barlow, whose best career finish on the PGA Tour is a tie for third, played the front side at minus-2 with birdies on five and eight. The 33-year-old jumped to 10 under as he birdied the 10th and 11th.
However, Barlow gave strokes back on the 13th and 15th to fall back to minus-8. He got those shots back with an eagle at the 17th to share second place.
Wilson struggled late in his round to finish at 2-under 69. He shares seventh place at 7-under-par 206 with Jim Furyk, Mark Brooks and Bob Estes. Lehman is one stroke further back at minus-6 and is tied with Nick Watney and Lee Westwood.