Rory Sabbatini has rediscovered his game, but will he rediscover his voice?
Rory Sabbatini shot a three-under-par 67 on Sunday to finish tied for sixth in the tournament formerly known as the Colonial Invitational. It was the fourth straight top-20 finish for Sabbatini and his third top-10—and that doesn’t include a T-3 he secured along with Brian Gay at the team play Zurich Classic last month.
Sabbatini’s current streak—which began with a T-10 at Hilton Head—isn’t likely to turn many heads. In fact, the only reference I could find to it online this morning was in a fantasy column. But it does represent quite a turnaround. Sabbatini was once one of the better players on the PGA Tour: he won six times between 2000 and 2011; played for the International Team in the Presidents Cup in 2007 and finished T-2 at the Masters that same year. His last victory was at the 2011 Honda Classic.
Sabbatini’s now 43 and the last few years haven’t been easy for him. He actually fell all the way to 191st in the FedEx Cup standings in 2016. In 2017, a T-4 in the last regular season event of the year, the Wyndham Championship, allowed him to sneak back into the top 125—at 124th. Last year was a little better: He finished 109th. This from a player who was once ranked as high as eighth in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Before his current streak, he had dropped to 225th in the OWGR and was 166th in this season’s FedEx Cup standings in early March. After his week at Colonial, he’s risen to 118th in the OWGR and, probably more importantly, is 55th in the FedEx Cup standings. The last time he was that high was at the end of 2013, when he finished 46th.
During his best days on tour, Sabbatini was known as much for his lightning-fast pace-of-play and for his temper as for his golf.
His most famous/infamous moment came in the final round of the 2005 Booz Allen Classic when he completely ran out of patience with molasses-slow Ben Crane and, for all intents and purposes, left him behind on the 17th green, walking to the 18th tee before Crane had walked onto the green.
He was roasted for that by many—including Paul Azinger who was working the 18th tower for ABC at the time. “That’s the rudest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course,” Azinger said, adding that Sabbatini had, “gone psycho.”
Many others in the mainstream golf media chimed in. But there were some who understood Sabbatini’s frustration. As luck—bad luck in Sabbatini’s case—would have it, he was paired with Crane for all four rounds that week. The two men were put on the clock on the back nine Sunday and Sabbatini simply lost it on 17 after finding the water with his second shot.
Was he wrong? Sure. Was his reaction understandable? Absolutely.
The U.S. Open was next on the tour schedule. Late on Monday afternoon, I was standing on the practice tee at Pinehurst on the first official practice day for the Open. Earlier in the day, Sabbatini had played a practice round and released a statement apologizing to Crane.
There were no more than a dozen players on the range that late on a hot day when Sabbatini arrived. I didn’t actually see him walk on to the range, but I looked up when I heard people clapping. I realized that just about everyone out there—players and caddies—was applauding for Sabbatini.
Because being brutally slow is at least as rude as having a momentary meltdown. Even Crane had said after he and Sabbatini finished the day before that he understood Sabbatini’s frustration.
Most of the players interviewed that day at Pinehurst said the same thing: Sabbatini shouldn’t have done what he did but he wasn’t wrong about slow play.
“Nothing’s going to change out here,” Stuart Appleby said that day. “The rules allow guys to play slowly.”
Almost 10 years later, with slow play still an issue, I was writing a column about it for Golf Digest. Naturally, the first person I thought to talk to was Sabbatini. I’d always gotten along with him and thought getting him to talk about it would be a slam dunk.
I was wrong. I approached him early in the week at the Players Championship. We shook hands and he said pleasantly, “What can I do for you?”
I never got the next sentence completely out of my mouth. “I’m doing a column on slow play and . . . ”
“NO!” Sabbatini roared, starting to walk away. “I’m not talking about it anymore. I’ve told the tour how I feel and what needs to be done and no one pays any attention. When they decide to do something, come back and talk to me. Until then, I’m finished!”
He stalked away to greet his wife.
The tour has made some tweaks in its slow-play rules, making fines more frequent and adding a $20,000 fine for any player who receives 10 bad times during the course of a season.
But the anti-slow play zealots (myself included) believe nothing will really change until the tour starts handing out penalty shots to slow players on a regular basis.
Sabbatini has had other controversies in his career: once yelling at a volunteer he thought had moved his ball (he had simply found it) and saying that Tiger Woods was ‘vulnerable,’ after Woods had beaten him by five shots in the final round of a tournament.
For the last several years, he hasn’t really been terribly relevant on tour. Prior to the start of his current streak, he’d had one top-10 finish—a T-5 at Valspar in March 2018—since his season-saving performance at the Wyndham in August of 2017.
But he was back in the news in January, when he was granted Slovakian citizenship: His wife, Martina, is a Slovakian citizen. The move might make it possible for Sabbatini to participate in the Tokyo Olympics next year. He also has citizenship in his native South Africa, and in the U.S. but, at least at the moment, isn’t likely to qualify to represent either country.
Personally, I’m glad to see him playing well again. Golf needs more outspoken players, regardless of the subject and, even though Sabbatini’s temper might get the better of him at times, I’d rather listen to him than a dozen players who thank their sponsors and say they’re giving 110 percent to try to get better.
Maybe Sabbatini’s last nine weeks—he’s made the last nine cuts—are just a blip. Or, maybe this is the start of a second act in what has, if nothing else, been a career that’s been fascinating to watch.
Sabbatini in the last group on a Sunday would be fun to see. Especially if he was paired with Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler. You can bet the groups ahead of them would know that they'd better keep moving.