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Sabbatini leads playoff at 8-under over Beem, Choi

By Doug Ferguson The Associated Press

HARRISON, N.Y. – The playoffs arrived on the PGA Tour and delivered an ideal first-round leader in Rory Sabbatini, a brash South African who loves the idea of going head-to-head and is not afraid to speak highly of his chances no matter who’s in his way.

Too bad Tiger Woods wasn’t around Thursday at The Barclays.

Sabbatini, whose best year in golf has been highlighted by barbs and challenges directed at the world’s No. 1 player, attacked a soft Westchester Country Club on his way to an 8-under 63 for a one-shot lead over Rich Beem and K.J. Choi.

The Barclays is the first of four tournaments that comprise the PGA Tour Playoffs, a new concept to golf aimed at rewarding those who play their best golf at the end of the year.

About the only thing that resembled real playoffs was that some of the top players brought their top games.

Even though Sabbatini is known for saying Woods looked as “beatable as ever,” he has tried to back up his words with strong play. A winner at Colonial, he came into these playoffs at No. 13 in the world and No. 6 in the playoff standings.

“I would say I’m getting close to getting to the top level,” Sabbatini said. “I keep opening the door and keep slamming it on my foot every time I step through. It’s just a matter of time before I break through and get to that top level. That’s the way I look at it.”

Choi is No. 5 in the playoff points, courtesy of his victories at Muirfield Village and Congressional. He also made eight birdies, offset by one bogey at No. 3, at a Westchester course that yielded an average score of 70.92, the lowest at this tournament since the tour began keeping such statistics in 1983.

Two other players among the top 10 also got off to a strong start – Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, playing in New York for the first time since his 72nd hole collapse last year in the U.S. Open down the road at Winged Foot. They both had 67.

Woods is the No. 1 seed, but decided to sit out the first round.

This format also offers hope for the long shots, and Beem took advantage. The former PGA champion is at No. 134 with no guarantee of playing next week outside Boston. Only the top 120 in the standings after The Barclays advance to the “second round,” and Beem likely will need a top 12 at Westchester to keep playing.

But he found something in his putting stroke during an extra 15 minutes waiting for the 10th tee to clear in the afternoon, made a few par saves to keep his momentum, then began his climb up the leaderboard with a 70-foot eagle putt on No. 18 as he made the turn.

Most players made fun of the FedEx Cup points system, saying they didn’t understand how it worked. But now that the playoffs are here, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t know his position in the standings and what they had to do to keep playing, or to move closer to the $10 million deferred prize that awaits.

“There’s a lot of guys in this tournament who know what the playoffs are all about – the guys Nos. 121 through whatever it is,” Beem said. “If I don’t play well this week, I have to take a vacation, which I don’t really want to take. I want to play well this week, and I want to play in Boston and I want to play in Chicago. So it has my attention.”

Ernie Els, a two-time champion at Westchester, continued to emerge from his mediocre play with a 6-under 66 that put him in the group with Steve Flesch, Carl Pettersson and Brian Gay, who took only 20 putts in his round.

Eighty players were at par or better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Vijay Singh, who is at No. 2 and had a golden chance to move to the top with Woods absent. But the three-time champion at Westchester struggled badly on the greens, starting with a four-putt at No. 14, and he wound up with a 75, his worst start at this event in five years.

The only surprise from Sabbatini was that he was relatively subdued after his best opening round of the year. That didn’t stop him from taking a few digs at Woods, noting the notion of a playoff system backfired when Woods skipped.

“I think maybe to some people, $10 million doesn’t seem like a whole lot of incentive,” he said.

It was fairly tamed compared with some inflammatory comments earlier in the year, especially when he said the “new Tiger” looked as beatable as ever, this after Woods had chased him down in the final group at the Wachovia Championship to win.

He also pointed out that he had beaten Woods in the final round of the NCAA Championship in 1996, even though Woods won the tournament by four shots. This was before the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational, where Woods proceeded to turn a one-shot deficit into an eight-shot victory.

There are no hard feelings between Sabbatini and Woods, and Woods has said the spunky South African is one of the few players who verbalize his rawest beliefs.

Beem has known Sabbatini since they were in Q-school a decade ago and has seen little change in his confidence.

“He’s very confident in his ability and what he’s capable of doing,” Beem said. “I have to hand it to him _ he backs it up. He’s playing awfully well. Saying that you want to take on the No. 1 player in the world? Dive right in. But you better bring it, and then some. … But I’m certainly never going to say that. I’m not going to say anything about Tiger except for, ‘Nice shot.'”

Perhaps the most encouraging round belonged to Mickelson, whose only blemish was a three-putt bogey on the par-5 18th. With his left wrist no longer giving him trouble, Lefty has only been looking for a few good scores on which to build momentum.

This was his best start since he shot 65 at the Scottish Open, which he lost in a playoff.

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