Sabbatini takes five-shot Honda Classic lead

Rory Sabbatini during the third round of the 2011 Honda Classic.

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• Honda Classic (Rd. 2)

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – After making consecutive birdies, Honda Classic leader Rory Sabbatini stood in the rough along the sixth fairway, complaining to a PGA Tour official about a delay in play and wondering what had become of the group just ahead of him.

The strange interruption could have halted Sabbatini’s momentum. Instead, after a long wait he hit an iron 200 yards to 10 feet of the pin, one of his better shots among the 66 Saturday that gave him a cushy lead.

Sabbatini will enter the final round at 9-under 201, five shots ahead of Jerry Kelly and 2009 winner Y.E. Yang.

The wait at No. 6 occurred when Kelly, playing two groups ahead of Sabbatini, lodged a shot in a palm tree. A newspaper photographer’s zoom lens was used to identify the ball as Kelly’s, allowing him to avoid being penalized for a lost ball.

The inspection took time, so the twosome behind Kelly played through. Meanwhile, Sabbatini and playing partner Kyle Stanley waited and wondered how they had caught up with Kelly.

“It was a little bit of dazed and confused,” Sabbatini said. “We’re like, ‘OK, where did he come from?’ And we’re trying to figure out what’s going on.”

A South African who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, Sabbatini’s known for his feisty manner and candor on any topic – even Tiger Woods. But nothing has riled him up this week, and he tried to look at the delay as something positive.

“Actually, I think maybe that might have helped me slow down a little out there,” he said. “It allowed me to back off a little bit and kind of refocus again. So I think that was a good thing.”

Yang birdied the last two holes for a 3-under 67 and moved into a tie for second with Kelly, who shot a roller-coaster 68. Gary Woodland also had a 68 and was fourth, six shots behind. Second-round leader Stanley had a 74 to drop seven strokes back.

Sabbatini, who changed putters this week, made birdie putts of 2, 40, 12, 18 and 18 feet.

“I’ve been putting well all year; I just didn’t feel like I was making anything,” he said. “Sometimes just changing the look of things, changing the feel of things, can kind of just spur something.”

With his new mallet-style putter, Sabbatini had the lowest round for the second day in a row after tying the tournament course record with a 64 Friday.

Sabbatini has won five PGA Tour titles, most recently at the 2009 Byron Nelson Championship. But he’s perhaps best known for once calling Woods “more beatable than ever,” long before the sex scandal that sent Woods’ career off track.

Sabbatini said he dislikes being cast as a villain, which may be why he switched from Friday’s wide-brimmed black hat to a white one. He said he hadn’t decided what color to wear Sunday, but regardless, he’ll be wearing a target as the leader.

Given the tough course and conditions at PGA National, Kelly doesn’t consider his five-shot deficit insurmountable.

“It’s catchable in three holes,” he said. “You never know what three holes they may be. You’ve just got to play solid, get some birdies, and you never know.”

Sabbatini’s take on being the front-runner: “You’d better be able to run faster if you’re being chased.”

Windy conditions have made pars precious all week, and weather will likely be a factor again Sunday. With thunderstorms in the forecast for the afternoon, tee times for the final round were moved up.

Sabbatini, Kelly and Yang will tee off last. Kelly, a Wisconsin native and a former hockey player who can get feisty himself, played with Sabbatini just last week at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.

“We always have a good time together,” Kelly said. “Him talking it up doesn’t bother me, because I tend to do the same thing.”

Lee Westwood, who fell to No. 2 in the rankings this week behind Martin Kaymer, was tied for 30th at 4 over after a 75. Westwood must finish alone in third place or better to regain the top ranking next week.

First-round leader Spencer Levin was tied for 16th at 2 over after a 73.

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