AKRON — Had this been a boxing match instead of a golf tournament, Rory Sabbatini would have been dazed by the third hole, wobbly by the fourth, semiconscious by the fifth and trying to chew off Tiger Woods’ ear by the sixth.
As it was, the spunky, big-talking South African was simply down for the count at the turn.
If golf had a heart — or a doctor stationed at the green to determine when a player’s psyche had been battered and bruised to dangerous levels — Bridgestone Invitational officials would have stopped the brutality after the 12th hole, walked over to Woods and thrust his right hand into the air.
That’s how thoroughly Woods pounded Sabbatini — and the rest of the field — on Sunday on the South Course at Firestone Country Club. Woods birdied four of the first six holes in firing the day’s low round, a 5-under 65 in rainy conditions, to steamroll everyone in sight and post a come-from-behind, eight-stroke win.
That’s right, a come-from-behind, eight-stroke win.
Not only was it Woods’ fourth win of the season – tops on Tour – but it was his third straight Bridgestone Invitational title (he’s the first player to ever win the same tournament three straight years on two different occasions) and his sixth in eight years at Firestone Country Club. That tied a Tour record for most wins on the same course.
It was also his 14th World Golf Championship – all the other players combined have 11 WGC wins – and 58th Tour title.
And though this wasn’t a major, it was almost as satisfying because Firestone had everything a major usually has – hard and fast fairways and greens, and deep, dangerous rough.
And like in the two U.S. Opens he won, Woods was the only player in the field to finish under par.
“This one felt good,” Woods said with a smile, knowing he has his game in good shape as he heads to this week’s PGA Championship, the year’s final major.
Beating Sabbatini, who stumbled home with a 4-over 74 to tie Justin Rose (68) for second at even par, had something to do with Woods’ sense of satisfaction.
Sabbatini led Woods by a shot after three rounds and for the third time this season felt compelled to challenge the world’s No. 1 player. He did it earlier this year when he led Woods by a shot heading into the final round of the Wachovia.
That day, Woods shot 69 to Sabbatini’s 74 and won the tournament. Still, Sabbatini wasn’t impressed, saying during the next week’s Tour stop that Woods’ ball-striking had not been impressive and that he was “as beatable as ever.”
So Saturday, Sabatini made it known he still believed he had the goods to take down Woods.
Asked about Sabbatini’s “calling him out” before the final rounds of two tournaments this year, Woods simply said: “I won both tournaments, too.”
Woods started strong, floating his 155-yard approach shot to 6 feet on the first hole and making the birdie putt. Sabbatini also birdied, though, as did Kenny Perry, the third member of their group.
But Woods kept the pressure on, reaching the par-5 second in two and two-putting for another birdie. A poor drive forced Sabbatini to lay up and the best he could do was par, pulling the two players even at 5 under.
Woods took his first lead of the day at No. 4, when he rolled in a 17-foot putt for birdie on the long par-4. Another wayward drive led to another Sabbatini bogey and Woods suddenly led by two.
“I felt if I could keep hitting fairways, keep hitting greens, keep giving myself a lot of looks at them, I could put a lot of pressure on (Sabbatini) because he didn’t look all that comfortable with his swing today,” Woods said. “He looked like he was making some putts just keeping himself in it.”
Woods essentially knocked Sabbatini out of it at the ninth when he finished off a crazy hole – his second shot landed in the crook of a woman’s arm – by chipping in for par. Sabbatini also was all over the place, but could do no better than a double bogey.
That gave Woods a six-stroke lead heading to the back nine. When Woods chipped in for his final birdie at the 12th, his lead was eight and Sabbatini’s chutzpah was nothing but a distant memory.
“You know,” said Sabbatini, “it’s been a good year for me, but still, the situation is I put myself in good position a couple of times and it’s been frustrating that I haven’t got it done with all the chances I’ve had.”
Asked if he might keep any future thoughts about Woods to himself, Sabbatini said, “Why?”
Maybe they really should have stopped this fight early.
Contact Kevin Aprile at email@example.com.