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A windy day of golf, all around

Rory Sabbatini shot a 67 to share the Players lead with Phil Mickelson, but his mind was on Tiger.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - In a recent poll of PGA Tour players by Sports Illustrated, one question stood out: Who is your least favorite playing partner?

The runaway favorite?

Rory Sabbatini, a 31-year-old South African, was cited by 25 percent of the 71 tour players polled, making him more than three times more unpopular than his closest competitors - a three-way tie among Ben Crane, Garrett Willis and Phil Mickelson, at 8 percent.

What's the problem with Sabbatini, a three-time winner on tour, including this year's Nissan Open?

While Sabbatini's reputation as a very quick player who loses his patience with playing partners no doubt earned him some votes, his often prickly demeanor - some would say arrogance - probably rubs some guys the wrong way.

Whether Sabbatini was being sarcastic or not, his saucy attitude was on full display yesterday after he shot a brilliant 5-under-par 67 on the windblown TPC Sawgrass that left him tied for the lead with Mickelson after the first round of The Players Championship.

Chris DiMarco was a shot back after a 4-under 68, and Peter Lonard was in at 69. Tom Lehman, Rodney Pampling, Jason Gore and Carl Pettersson were tied at 70.

But as far as Sabbatini was concerned, Mickelson was not on his radar screen. When he decided to do a little trash-talking yesterday, Sabbatini took direct aim at the No. 1 player in the world, Tiger Woods.

As it happens, Woods struggled to a 3-over 75 yesterday - only his eighth birdie-less round as a pro - that matched his highest round ever in the Players and left him 8 shots off the lead. Just a few days ago, however, in the Wachovia Championship, which he won, Woods was in Sunday's final pairing with Sabbatini and smoked him by 5 shots, shooting 69 to Sabbatini's 74.

To hear Sabbatini crowing yesterday, though, he must have managed to put that round out of his mind.

"I want Tiger," Sabbatini said. "Everyone wants Tiger. I want him to pick it up and we'll be up there late on Sunday."

He wasn't finished. "The funny thing is," Sabbatini continued, "after watching him play on Sunday, I think he's more beatable than ever. . . . And realizing that gives me even more confidence to go in and play him on Sunday again."

To be fair, it's sometimes hard to figure out when Sabbatini is being serious and when he's not.

"Trust me, it drives my wife nuts," he said, adding that he's not at all concerned about the Sports Illustrated poll. His mission is to win tournaments, not make friends, but he admits that it does take its toll. "Maybe that's why people don't understand me - because it's a dry sense of humor."

Too bad Woods, who played early, was nowhere to be found afterward for comment. You can bet, however, that Woods, who can find inspiration in the slightest slight, the dullest dis, will have Sabbatini's taunts posted on the bulletin board of his mind by the time he tees off today.

Woods, who hit only six of 14 fairways and made two three-putts - three, if you count another from the fringe - left the TPC Sawgrass without bothering to practice.

"Under these conditions, it's really hard to do any practicing out there, because the wind is blowing so hard the ball is not really flying," he said. "You can't really get a read on how it's flying."

With subtropical storm Andrea swirling off the coast yesterday, the 3- and 4-club wind was as much a part of the story as the golf.

By the end of play, 46 players had hit a total of 50 balls in the water at the island-green 17th. Last year, the 17th claimed only 57 balls all week.

Everywhere you looked yesterday, players were holding onto their hats, or chasing hats, or backing away from putts because the ball was threatening to wobble in the wind. For one woman carrying a scoring standard, it was all she could do to keep herself from sailing away.

The worst of the winds came in the afternoon, and was reflected in the scores. Still, it was no picnic in the morning, which made the 67s by Sabbatini and Mickelson all the more impressive.