- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

Welcome to another classic Capital Open finish.

After three rounds that featured charges by players like David Duval, Fred Funk and Rich Beem, the star assassin better known as TPC at Avenel has once again given us a finale featuring a pair of virtually undecorated combatants.

This year’s unheralded suitors for the Capital crystal are Rory Sabbatini (11 under) and Niclas Fasth (10 under), a pair of foreigners who stand several strokes clear of the field, and several clicks out of their comfort zones, heading into today’s final round.

“I haven’t won a big event yet, so it will take a lot for me to win I’m sure,” said Fasth, a 31-year-old Swede who has won just one bottom-tier European Tour event (2000 Madeira Open) in his decade as a professional. “In my own evaluation, the main reason I haven’t won is that the game has been good, but not good enough to win the big ones. Whether I’ll win tomorrow, I don’t have a clue. But the game is getting there.”

Fasth, who is best known for his runner-up finish to Duval in the 2001 British Open and his participation in last year’s Ryder Cup, played nearly mistake-free golf yesterday, missing only two fairways and two greens en route to a 67 that could have been far better.

“The wind was really hard out there today,” said Fasth, who made his lone bogey when he misjudged the breeze on the par-5 13th and airmailed the green. “There was very little wind, so you would think it was nothing. But it changed direction all the time … I came up short or long [on approaches] a lot of times today. They were on the greens, but not close enough to the pins.”

Sabbatini, who began the day with a two-stroke lead over Fasth, Duval (4 under) and two others, didn’t strike the ball as consistently as Fasth but used some timely putting and a conservative 3-wood approach off most tees to fashion a solid 68 on the 7,005-yard, par-71 layout.

Interestingly, Sabbatini’s career mirrors Fasth’s almost exactly. Like Fasth, the 27-year-old South African collected his only victory in 2000 in one of the PGA Tour’s lesser events (the now-defunct Air Canada Championship).

And like Fasth, Sabbatini has struggled to close in events where he has been in contention. Consider his last five Tour starts: after posting an average score of 70.3 over the first three rounds at each of those events, Sabbatini’s final-round average has soared to 73.6 strokes.

“Every Sunday I’ve played the best I can. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t been there,” said Sabbatini, who has two top-10 finishes this season and a world ranking of 96th. “That’s part of the learning process, going out there and struggling through it.

“I think it’s harder [to win] the second time than the first. You know you’ve won, but mentally you’re saying, ‘OK, I’ve done this. Let’s go do it again.’ In some sense, you’re putting more pressure on yourself.”

Given that neither man has a wealth of either experience or accomplishment under pressure, the veterans on the board beneath them will hope to rattle the pair with an early charge. Four-time Tour winner Duffy Waldorf (8 under) is closest after a 66 and has the benefit of playing with the unheralded duo.

“I’ve played with Rory a few times,” said the 40-year-old Waldorf, who could be hoping to daze the youngsters with his signature vertigo-inducing wardrobe. “He’s a lot of fun to play with. It seems like he plays by the seat of his pants. He goes for everything and is an aggressive player. He’s a long hitter and a good putter. When he’s on he’s a tough player to beat. I’ve never played with Niclas Fasth before. But he’s a Ryder Cup player, so I don’t need to say more.”

Actually, Fasth was more of a liability than a stalwart of the European team that bested the Uncle Sam’s boys at the Belfry. He might have experienced the game’s ultimate level of stress at the event, but his record (0-2-1) suggests he didn’t handle it with overwhelming aplomb.

Beneath Waldorf a host of high-profile players at 7 under stand poised for one final 18-hole assault, including Funk, Beem, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and Chris DiMarco.

“A 62 or a 63 is out there. It’s definitely possible,” said Sabbatini, still wary of the pack. “There’s no room for complacency out there or getting ahead of yourself or thinking its a match-play situation.”

Perhaps that’s the answer provided in the PGA Tour’s cliche handbook. But in reality, it’s unlikely that Waldorf, much less a player further back, will catch either.

“I don’t know exactly about Rory, but he’s ranked probably in the top-50 in the world,” said Fasth, who is ranked 43rd. “I am. I have been for two years. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if we won a tournament, would it?”

Nope, it won’t be a shock at all when one of them wins a Capital Open that has built a reputation for crowning first-timers and relative unknowns. In fact, it would be a shock if one of them doesn’t claim the Capital crystal.

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