Rory Sabbatini is the first round leader at The Barclays, the FedEx Cup playoffs' first event. Rory Sabbatini, calling out Tiger Woods, shoots 63 to lead FedEx Cup opener The Barclays in N.Y.

HARRISON, N.Y. - Ernie Els found time for a mid-round beef sandwich in the heart of the supposed pressure of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs. Rory Sabbatini just used his time to rack up birdies and fire a few more shots at the absent Tiger Woods.

Sabbatini is on top of the leaderboard after shooting an 8-under 63 in the first round of The Barclays Thursday, surging past his South African elder Els who'd moved into a tie for the lead at 6-under in the late afternoon and looked like he would be the story of the Cup's first day. Until Sabbatini, in Els' words, kept "shooting darts at the flags."

An eight-birdie, no-bogey round on a Westchester Country Club course he called "pretty easy," left Sabbatini with only a one-shot lead over Rich Beem and K.J. Choi, who both also played in the afternoon when the soggy course dried out from early-week New York downpours. Els - whose 65 continued the comeback form he showed in the final round of the PGA Championship - ended up tied with a trio of journeymen and extreme FedEx Cup longshots (Brian Gay, Steve Flesch and Carl Pettersson) at two strokes back.

Still Sabbatini is pretty confident in his position. Of course, the South African who memorably challenged Woods verbally in two tournaments this year, only to lose both by wide margins in the final round to Woods, is always confident.

"I think I started being confident when I was about four," Sabbatini said. "That was actually a lot worse. I've actually kind of toned it down."

That will probably come as news to Woods, who cited "fatigue" from his PGA Championship win as the reason for skipping the first of the four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. Sabbatini went right back at Woods again after his 63, threatening to overshadow his play with his words. Again.

"Oh I definitely think it's something other than fatigue," Sabbatini said when asked about top players skipping out on the first FedEx Cup tournament - and there's only one top 30 player who isn't here. "…I think maybe to some people $10 million doesn't seem like a whole lot of incentive, but to others it would seem like a good incentive."

Sabbatini comes into The Barclays in sixth place in the FedEx Cup standings, putting him in position to vault right over points leader Woods with a top three finish in The Barclays. For Sabbatini though, his second win of the year would be even more important.

As Els said, the regular purses for the next four events ($7 million in each, paid immediately) "are so big" by themselves that winning one would produce plenty of joy regardless of a player's Cup standing.

Els hardly seemed fazed by the hoopla of the huge flashing electronic scoreboards and FedEx Cup trucks parked around the course. He responded to a long backup at the 10th tee by strolling into the clubhouse grill and asking for a bite to eat from a stunned worker.

"They had already taken all the food away, so the lady was nice enough to go back into the kitchen and cook me something nice," Els said.

Beem used his own 20-minute wait to find his long lost putting stroke and give himself a chance to avoid turning into a forced couch potato or beach goer. Seldom having been heard from since he beat Woods down the stretch to win the 2002 PGA Championship, Beem came into The Barclays in 134th place on the 144-man FedEx Cup standings.

With only the top 120 players moving on to the second playoff tournament next week, and only the top 70 in points making it to the third week, Beem understands he is in desperate need of high finishes to keep playing.

"I tell you what, there's a lot of guys in this tournament who know what the playoffs are all about," Beem said. "The guys 121 through whatever it is, we all know what the playoffs are all about. If I don't play well this week, I have to take a vacation, which I really don't want to take."

Needing only 25 putts on Westchester's sloping greens has Beem keeping any travel agents at bay. Beem felt horrible about his putting stroke before the round - until slow play pushed his tee time back 20 minutes and "all of a sudden I just started working on some things."

"The best delay of my life," he laughed.

Choi, who tied Beem's 64, has no worries over advancing, coming in fifth in the Cup standings. Neither does No. 4 Phil Mickelson who shot a 67 in the morning when it looked like 4-under would put you much closer to the lead.

Everyone else is chasing Sabbatini though, a guy who sounds like he wishes he had a Woods on his tail too.

"You know, if you can beat Tiger in the process, it just makes it sweeter," Sabbatini said. "Definitely if it's a head-to-head situation, obviously that's something that people have struggled to do in the past.

"It's something somebody has eventually got to do though."

Sabbatini cannot do that this week - but he can win while thinking of Woods.

August 24, 2007

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Comments Leave a comment