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. Spokane’s Alex Prugh shot a final round 71 to finish 19 strokes behind Sabbatini.
“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 when the rankings come out today.
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.”
Sabbatini 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.
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.”