The support was rousing as Rory Sabbatini walked down the 18th fairway yesterday at TPC at Avenel still the defending champion of the Booz Allen Classic. He had fallen well behind the leader but nonetheless was in the midst of a round that would keep him in the top five heading into the final day.
Sabbatini had a long putt for birdie that he left short, and the ensuing putt for par was to keep him in double-figure red numbers. The native of South Africa, who is just as content driving fast cars as he is playing on the PGA Tour, went through his customary preshot routine, approached the ball that rested within seven feet of the hole and hunched over to putt.
Then a heckler interrupted his moment.
"Unfortunately, there was somebody up in the suites up there who was deciding he was going to do some of his own commentating," Sabbatini said.
Thanks to some recent focus on his mental game, Sabbatini was able to block out that unpleasant interlude and clean up his putt to finish his round 2-under-par 69 for a three-day total of 10-under 203. Three straight rounds in the 60s, however, still left Sabbatini eight shots behind Adam Scott.
"Basically, the situation is I'm far enough back that going into tomorrow I have to post a very good number for it to challenge Adam Scott," Sabbatini said. "He's a very capable player, very solid player, and I think it's going to take a very low score and a very good number to catch him."
That likely means Sabbatini must better his low round at Avenel of 66, which he carded in rounds two and four en route to winning the tournament last season when it was called the FBR Capital Open.
"I've just got to go out and do what I was doing today and hope the putts drop," said Sabbatini, who took 29 putts yesterday, the most he has needed in his three rounds. "If that happens, I think there's a possibility to go low."
Putting has been a sore spot for Sabbatini this season. He is tied for 129th on tour in that category, and it cost him last week at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Sabbatini shot rounds of 72 and 74 to miss the cut.
The disappointment of not making it to the weekend of America's national championship did not dampen the two-time PGA Tour winner's resolve to come to Avenel and defend his title. He opened the tournament with a 67 and entered yesterday tied for fifth. A third straight 67 would have left him a more reasonable six shots off the lead.
"Obviously, it was important to me," Sabbatini said of winning the tournament for a second straight year. "I felt I played very nicely last year at a point when I was struggling with my game, and this year I'm coming in obviously hitting the ball a lot better, and if I can go ahead and just do what I'm doing out there and hopefully have some putts fall, I think there could be a good possibility."
Sabbatini has three top 10s this season and two finishes in the top three. His best tournament came a week before the U.S. Open, when Sabbatini used closing rounds of 65-70 to finish 12-under 272 and claim second place at the Buick Classic.
"I'm happy with my game. I'm still doing a lot of work on my mental aspect of the game," Sabbatini said, "and I'm really working on cutting out some mental mistakes I've made out on the course. I've found that to be my biggest problem out there, so if I can just keep working on that and getting better with that, I think it's just going to make me into a better player."