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Sabbatini regains his mojo, takes lead at Memorial

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Phil Mickelson reacts to missing a putt on the third hole during the first round of the Memorial golf tournament Thursday, May 31, 2012, in Dublin, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

DUBLIN, Ohio >> Rory Sabbatini hadn’t strung together two good rounds in months.

Thanks to practice, positive thinking, patience — and a touch of Bob Marley — he’s sitting atop the leaderboard at the Memorial.

“It’s definitely been a challenge over the last couple of months,” said Sabbatini, who had missed the cut in eight of his last 12 starts. “It’s been frustrating. For a couple weeks now it’s definitely felt like things have been there but I really just haven’t been putting the numbers up. It’s great to finally see a little bit of reward for the work that we’ve put in.”

The South African shot his second 69 in as many days on Friday at Jack Nicklaus’ tournament to take a one-shot lead over old nemesis Tiger Woods, along with Scott Stallings and Spencer Levin.

Of course, Sabbatini had famously feuded with Woods years ago. After losing to Woods by four shots at the 2007 Wachovia Championship, Sabbatini said, “The funny thing is after watching (Woods) play on Sunday, I think he’s more beatable than ever.”

Woods discounted the comment and later beat Sabbatini in a head-to-head matchup — shooting a 65 to Sabbatini’s 74 — in the final round of the Bridgestone later that summer. Midway through that round, with Woods dominating him, Sabbatini had a fan ejected from the course for asking him if he still thought Woods was so beatable.

After Friday’s round, Sabbatini was asked what he learned from second-guessing Woods’ abilities.

“I guess the biggest lesson I learned was be careful what you say because the media will turn it on you,” he said.

Woods completed his second-round 69 well before Sabbatini. He’s also feeling good about his game after some hard times of his own, including missing a cut and finishing tied for 40th in his last three starts.

He didn’t set out to go low, just to survive.

“Just hang in there, shooting something in the red — that was the goal today,” said Woods, a four-time Memorial winner. “It was just a day where you kind of grind it out. The leaders weren’t going to go anywhere today. It’s just too hard out there. I figured it would be stacked up, but at least I’d be there.”

Woods and Sabbatini won’t be paired in the third round. Sabbatini plays with Levin and Woods with Stallings.

Now just known as the second most famous Rory in golf, the usually confident Sabbatini’s recent difficulties had broken his spirit.

“It’s a game of confidence and I have been struggling,” he said. “I was down on myself and down on my game.”

He hadn’t shot back-to-back rounds in the 60s since late January. But he felt a spark of his old self over the last few holes in the final round at Colonial. Then he was even through his first 12 holes at Muirfield Village on Thursday before going 4 under over the last six holes.

After months of not being able to put two good nines together, much less two good rounds, he played the final 10 holes under cool and breezy conditions in 4 under to take over the lead.

Play was suspended for almost 2 hours earlier in the day. Sabbatini said he killed time by watching a movie about Marley.

“It was a great life lesson,” he said. “I’ve actually always loved his music. I’ve known a lot about him, but to see his attitude toward life and just his attitude in general is admirable. It’s something that all of us could only aspire to.”

Woods favorably compared the way he’s playing to what he did at Bay Hill — his only win in a full-field event since 2009.

“It’s better (now) because I’m able to shape the ball both ways and hit the ball correct distances every time,” he said. “If you look over the course of my career, that’s one thing that I’ve been very good at — hitting the ball pin high. The last couple of days, I’ve done that.”

Stallings, the first-round leader, sagged to a 73, while Levin shot a 72 in the gusting winds.

There was almost no comparison after a dry, fast course had an inch of rain dumped on it.

“The golf course that I knew, it’s like I’ve never played here before,” Stallings said. “I might as well have not even played a practice round if it’s going to be like this.”

It won’t. Dry and cool conditions are expected for the final 36 holes.

Tied for fifth at 140 were Daniel Summerhays (71) and Jim Furyk, a past Memorial winner whose 68 matched the low round of the day. Next came Jonathan Byrd (70), Trevor Immelman (70), Aaron Baddeley (72), Troy Matteson (69) and Dublin native Kyle Reifers (70). Rickie Fowler, followed around by a legion of young kids wearing lime green or electric orange flat-billed caps, led a logjam at 142. Defending champion Steve Stricker shot a 70 and was at 143.

World No. 1 Luke Donald was at even 144, but No. 2 Rory McIlroy — the more famous Rory — had two double-bogeys on the incoming nine and missed his third cut in a row.

“It just seems like every time I go out there I make one or two big numbers,” said McIlroy, who is running out of time to get his game in order before defending his U.S. Open title in two weeks at Olympic in San Francisco. “Those big numbers are killing me. I just need to get those off the card and I’ll be OK.”

McIlroy said he needs a shot of confidence. Sabbatini had his all but wiped out by recent bad play, but it hasn’t taken him long to regain it.

Asked what he was thinking heading into Saturday, he said, “I always say ‘Let’s shoot seven shots better on Saturday than I do on Friday,’ so I’ll take that.”

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