PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Walking off the second tee Sunday, Rory Sabbatini veered left and stopped, peering toward a patch of 3-foot grass and the lake behind it.
Trouble for the Honda Classic leader? Maybe. Something was rustling in the rough.
“Is that a gator?” Sabbatini said.
The South African was wise to brace himself for any menace on the PGA National course. While no reptile sightings were confirmed, Sabbatini’s five-stroke lead shrank to one in the space of seven holes, and a halt in play because of lightning delayed his march toward victory.
He weathered the weather, turned back a late challenge from Y.E. Yang and shot an even-par 70 for a one-stroke win.
“Luckily I had enough of a cushion that I didn’t get too concerned,” Sabbatini said. “I knew going into today that if I shot even par, it was going to be tough to catch.”
He sealed the title with a 2-foot par putt on No. 18 for a 72-hole total of 9-under 271. The resident of Fort Worth, Texas, earned his sixth PGA Tour victory and his first since the 2009 Byron Nelson Championship.
Yang, Honda’s 2009 winner, birdied the final hole for a closing 66 to finish 8 under. Jerry Kelly, who played with Sabbatini and Yang in the last threesome, shot a 67 and took third at 7 under.
“Rory did what he had to do to hold us off,” Kelly said, “and we just didn’t hit it good enough to make enough birdies.”
Lee Westwood shot 70-284 and tied for 29th place, meaning Martin Kaymer will remain ranked No. 1. Westwood fell to No. 2 on Feb. 28 and needed a top-three finish to regain the top spot Monday.
Sabbatini is known for his fiery personality, outspoken nature and occasional digs at Tiger Woods, who skipped the event. But Sabbatini’s demeanor was even-keel from the time he took the lead to stay on the front nine Saturday.
“I’m a passionate golfer,” he said. “I love the game of golf, and I’ve had my moments. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done out here, but I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to be a role model for my children, and I know as my wife has said to me, I wouldn’t want my son doing some of the things that I’ve done in the past.”
The Sabbatinis have three children ranging in age from 7 years to 5½ months.
Dad started the final round up by five shots, and after No. 8 the lead remained the same. But Yang was within one stroke seven holes later, thanks to birdies on Nos. 12 and 14 and two bogeys by Sabbatini.
Then came treacherous Nos. 15-17, the water-laden stretch known as the Bear Trap. But there would be no collapse by the leader.
In fact, Yang said he was more shaky than Sabbatini down the stretch.
“Usually if you’re in front, if you’re running away from somebody, you tend to be a bit nervous,” the South Korean said through an interpreter. “But in Rory’s case, apart from No. 14, he seemed really calm. I commend him for being, I guess, so emotionally stable. I wasn’t.”
A change in putters before the tournament gave Sabbatini’s game a lift, and the new club came through again on No. 16. He sank a 16-foot birdie putt to go back up by two.
Then Sabbatini put his tee shot on the dangerous par-3 17th in the middle of the green. Moments later, a horn signaled a stoppage in play because of lightning in the area.
“It was good for him that he actually put it on the green before the horn went off,” Yang said.
The players found refuge in a van as heavy rain fell during a 28-minute delay. But the threat to Sabbatini’s lead had passed, and when the round resumed he easily closed out the win.
Sabbatini played the Bear Trap 1 under for the tournament, while the rest of field was 1 over.
“I just really tried to play those holes as smartly as I could and just try to eliminate any opportunity for some big numbers,” Sabbatini said. “There’s a pretty good reason they call it the Bear Trap, because if it doesn’t get you one way, it’s going to get you another. It definitely caused some stress for me today.”
Scores were lower Sunday because the winds of earlier in the week fell off, but the average round for the tournament was still 2½ strokes above par. Since the beginning of 2010, only last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach has had a higher average – 4 over par.
Graeme McDowell shot a 64, matching the lowest score in the event since it moved to PGA National in 2007, and finished 2 under. No. 3-ranked Luke Donald, the 2006 champion, tied for 10th at 1 under, shooting a closing 66.