October 16, 2007

Rory Sabbatini

Despite first impressions the tour's bad boy is undergoing an extreme makeover

Rory Sabbatini could stand some work on his first impression.

It starts with the walk. Built like a bouncer, Sabbatini leans into a fairway with his head high, his wide back forcing his thick arms to hang outward like a gunfighter packing holstered heat. "Oh, man, nobody walks like Rory," says Rich Beem. "Well, maybe a rooster."

It continues with the clothes. Usually bright and always tight, Sabbatini's outfits are in-variably dominated by shining-silver, pirate-skull belt buckles that form a desperate clash of golf and goth. "No," says Marty Hackel, this magazine's Mr. Style.

Finally, there's the game face. Sabbatini's eyes are narrowed and set close on a broad face, and his jaw muscles are either working a wad of Nicorette or a lower lip with chew. A poor shot or missed putt routinely elicits a glower that looks as if it could easily advance to a trembling, exploding head. The Sabbatini grimace, meanwhile, is the closest match on his person to the scary belt buckles. At the Barclays in August, CBS replayed it in slow motion, its culmination described by Gary McCord as "granny face."

When all the parts work together, the effect can be unsettling. The most infamous example, of course, occurred when Sabbatini, paired with Ben Crane during the final round of the 2005 Booz Allen, became so fed up with Crane's slow play that he stomped some 200 yards to the back of the 17th green and waited -- seething -- for the puzzled (and in-contention) Crane to hit his approach. Describing Sabbatini's behavior, then-commentator Paul Azinger observed, "He's gone psycho."

Largely because of that overreaction to the glacial but popular Crane, Sabbatini was voted least favorite player to be paired with in a poll of tour players. So in May of this year, when Sabbatini defiantly emerged from being dusted by Tiger Woods in the final group at the Wachovia with the suggestion that the world No. 1 was "more beatable than ever" and that he preferred playing against "the new Tiger" -- veritable trash talking relative to the sport and certainly the notoriously avenging target -- Sabbatini had little credibility and no political capital. Though he gained a bit of both after he won at Colonial three weeks later, declaring that "my goal is to go to the top of the World Ranking, and I'm not going to let anything stop me," Sabbatini basically used it all up with more brashness on the eve of taking a one-stroke lead into another final-round pairing with Woods at Firestone in August.

Asked if he thought he'd put a target on his back by saying he wanted the pairing, Sabbatini said, "Oh, I'm sure it does. But hey, Tiger has got a target on him every week. Maybe I'm just getting a little taste of what it's like to be No. 1."

The next day it was 65 to 74, with Sabbatini making things worse for himself by petulantly asking that a fan be removed for calling out, "Hey, Rory: Still think Tiger's beatable?" moments after Sabbatini had made a double bogey. Instead of getting underdog support, or even the admiration usually bestowed on scrappers willing to put themselves on the line, Sabbatini became a cartoonish Anti-Tiger who could dish it out but didn't know how to take it. Having been spanked, he was figuratively sentenced to Bigmouth Island to join fellow exiles Terrell Owens, Tony Stewart and Bode Miller. "Everyone knows how Rory is," said Woods in a not-so-cryptic summary.

To his peers, the subject of Sabbatini became radioactive. When Ernie Els was asked if Sabbatini's older brother, whom Els had grown up playing against in South Africa, was like Rory, Els warily answered, "What do you mean?" Normally voluble Steve Flesch took a pass -- "I'm not going to say a word" -- and Tim Clark, who has known Sabbatini since childhood, asked for some time to think about his answer. "It's a delicate subject," he said. In website chat rooms, of course, there was no hesitation. "Rory's an idiot," was a typical post on TheSandTrap.com. "Spit out your gum. Learn how to dress. Shut your pie hole."

Hopefully for Sabbatini, first impressions aren't permanent. The same guy who sometimes jaws with feisty fans unfailingly signs autographs, usually leaving recipients with a "There you go, buddy." He has donated huge sums to charities, in particular the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund for soldiers and their families. He's known for picking up dinner checks, and on the day the iPhone was introduced, Sabbatini bought several to give to friends, including fellow pro Ted Purdy. "That kind of thing just doesn't happen among players," says Purdy. "But if Rory is your friend, he's really your friend." After Sabbatini's wife, Amy, idly mused how much she likes vintage Mini Coopers, Rory surprised her by purchasing a restored 1974 model on eBay and having it delivered at Westchester.

"He might have a bad-boy image, but for me he's kind of a Boy Scout," says Amy, a Texan who says her husband of five years has an affinity for home decorating, gift wrapping and even "crystallizing" her shoes. "I always call him 'West Hollywood.' He just surprises you that way, and it's why his friends and family feel he's so misunderstood."

"I always tell my kids, 'Just because you watch someone play golf doesn't mean you know what they're like,' " says Davis Love III, who, like Sabbatini, stays in a tricked-out motor home next to the host course during tournaments. "Rory's a classic that way. All the families that live in buses become like a neighborhood, and Rory's the friendliest, most helpful guy on the block."

Indeed, cooling out around his grill after the pro-am of the Deutsche Bank Championship with Amy and their two children, Harley, 4, and Tylie, 2, Sabbatini is relaxed and funny, laughing about the inordinate number of letters he gets from prison inmates and recounting -- with a sly look at his wife -- being introduced to his then future father-in-law, Joe Meyer. "The first three words he ever said to me," Rory says, "were 'Run like hell.' " Even when he's in a good mood, Sabbatini has an outsized personality: his voice loud, his opinions forceful, his gestures demonstrative, his needle-oriented humor sharp. It's a big part of the reason he's considered a difficult player to be paired with. "Most tour players like serenity and calmness when they play competitive rounds," says Dean Reinmuth, Sabbatini's former swing coach. "Rory's natural way is a bit too jarring for a lot of them, like a bull in a china shop."

Sabbatini

Photo: Getty Images

An example of Sabbatini's close-to-the-line humor was on display during a recent press conference when he went out of his way to tweak Els. "I met him when he was 18," said Sabbatini, his mouth forming a puckish grin. "I went up to him and introduced myself, and he goes, 'Now you can tell everybody else you met Ernie.' "

One can see Els shaking his head.

Of course, a raging Rory is too much for almost anyone. "I remember when I was about 9 years old, just playing a friendly round, and I lipped out a 40-footer on the first hole," he says, his voice a mixture of his native Durban, South Africa, and the Dallas metroplex, where the Sabbatinis keep a home when they aren't on the road. "Well, I got mad and walked off the golf course. Who knows why I'm like that? All I know is that I'm always going to have to fight my nature to play competitive golf, and it's the toughest challenge I have. It's always easier to be weak and get angry and let the negative self-talk take you over."

"You pass the genes on," says his mother, Sharon, by phone from South Africa. "I've got Irish blood in me, and I've got a very, very short fuse. And I also speak my mind, and it gets me into trouble as well. You get to a boiling point, and you explode, and obviously you regret it afterward. But most people appreciate me for being straightforward. I'm not one of these mundane, boring people, and neither is my son. I've always let him be himself." Early in his career, Sabbatini left a trail of ripped gloves and snapped shafts from South Africa to the University of Arizona, where he was a cocky three-time All-American and known as "The Great Sabbatini."

"Rory was just raw emotion on the golf course, and all the more because he cared so much," says his college coach, Rick LaRose. "Driving par 4s, hitting long irons over trees -- he felt like there wasn't anything he couldn't do. But being Rory, when he didn't do it, it was very hard for him to handle."

Burt Kinerk, Sabbatini's first agent, remembers the fury of the young pro. "The displays," Kinerk intones, "could be very onerous to a father with a child out there."

They were also onerous for Sabbatini's scores, giving him a reputation for losing composure and concentration for crucial three- and four-hole stretches, the main reason he missed 74 cuts in his first 202 events on the PGA Tour through last year. But Sabbatini says two experiences forced him to confront his demons. "Obviously the way I lost my cool with Ben Crane was dead wrong and wasn't pretty to watch," he says. "And having kids has been good for my faults, especially my impatience. You don't want them to see you like that and learn that behavior."

It brings up Sabbatini's huge respect for Woods, a point he says got completely lost in the way his comments were taken.

"Composure and mental strength is where he has basically separated himself from everyone else," Sabbatini says. "Even when things aren't going right for him, he has a way of mentally turning the round around and changing it just through willpower. If I could get half of what he has, I'm sure it would be a completely different ballgame for me."

Sabbatini saw discernible progress early this year at Pebble Beach, where he played in a group with Las Vegas entertainer Danny Gans, who was constantly being prompted to break into impressions and routines for the television cameras.

"I'd just met Rory, knew his reputation for hating to wait, and now we're probably the most interrupted group on the course," says Sabbatini's amateur partner, actor Peter Gallagher. "But you know, Rory was amazing. A couple of times he mumbled something about 'The Human Rain Delay,' but he was never short or rude in any way.

"He has this very real way about him," Gallagher says. "The first words he said to me would have made a sailor blush, which put me on my heels for a second, but then I answered, 'You kiss your children with that mouth?' and we were off.

"What I learned is that when it comes to golf, Rory doesn't know anything but full-out passion," Gallagher adds. "He cares so much about playing well, sometimes it takes all he's got not to bury his wedge up to the grip. He manages it only because he's all heart, all talent, all balls."

That trio of attributes is why Sabbatini has kept improving. He might be misunderstood, and he might be, in the words of ex-player and current commentator Frank Nobilo, "a bit whacked," but there is no doubt that he has become a force.

In 2007, Sabbatini, 31, has played the best golf of his life. With a full swing that allows him, in the words of Jeff Sluman, "to never get cheated," Sabbatini has always played a talent-laden, high-risk game that features power and short-game artistry. But this year has been marked by the element that had been missing: consistency. Along with winning at Colonial and tying for second at the Masters -- by far his best finish in a major -- Sabbatini has had six top-three finishes, missed only five cuts in 22 events, and through the BMW Championship, risen to a career-best 10th in the world. "My goal is to get into the top five by next year," he says.

Brilliance seemed innate. Sabbatini began playing at age 4 with his father, Frank, a family doctor in Durban; his mother; and older brother (by seven years), Gary. (Rory also has an older sister, Shelley.) "Rory was always extremely well-coordinated, had tremendous ball sense in any sport," says his mother. Sabbatini remembers his first junior tournament at age 8, and winning long-drive contests that included older boys.

Sabbatini grew up admiring Seve Ballesteros for his virtuosity, and indeed, Sabbatini's raw ability is considered in the ultimate league. Along with being ambidextrous (Sabbatini has occasionally putted left-handed in competition), he has the entire prodigy arsenal of full shots off his knees, massive curves and amazing mega-flops with wedges. "You could always find Rory either on the range blasting drivers, or around the practice green trying to spin the ball back," says Clark. "He loves extreme shots."

"He's got some of the greatest hands in the game," says Reinmuth, who gave Sabbatini his first formal lesson in 1998, the year Rory turned pro. "He can hit any kind of shot with a wedge. From the sand, he might be better than either Phil or Tiger. Rory's biggest problem was a lack of refinement with the long game. He hit everything hard, took huge, deep divots. But the more he picks up the off-speed shot, the better player he's becoming." The lack of refinement showed most in majors, which until his second-place finish at this year's Masters (he briefly led in the final round after an eagle on the par-5 eighth before bogeys on the 14th and 16th) were a wasteland for Sabbatini: only nine cuts made in 21 attempts and a best finish of T-26 at the 2006 British.

But Sabbatini has lately come to appreciate course management, hitting more 3-woods off the tee and swinging with more control with his irons. "Our philosophy is 'safe lines, good swings,' says Sabbatini's good friend, caddie and swing coach, Kevin Fasbender, a former assistant professional at Starr Pass in Tucson. "We're coming off more pins, not firing at everything, and his swing's becoming more compact, with a lot less movement. It's a matter of controlling every shot and knowing where that club is with a shorter swing, rather than just taking a big lash at it with the big reverse-C finish, which is what he used to do. As far as his head, he's a firecracker, but I'm really mellow, so maybe we balance each other out." According to Sabbatini, the swing improvement has been a direct result of the first serious fitness program, with trainer Jeff Banaszak, he has ever committed to.

"My swing was always dependent on timing," says Sabbatini. "When it was on, I hit it great; when it wasn't, I hit it awful. Jeff has corrected that by nullifying my weak body parts. I'm so much more stable that I can hold my golf posture through the swing and repeat the right body positions without worrying about timing. So basically my bad days now are where my good days used to be, and my good days are way beyond. It's been huge."

Of course, until he wins more often, and especially begins performing to his ability in majors, Sabbatini will continue to be known as the failed Tiger tamer. But he says he won't change his pre-round rap the next time they have a showdown, despite urging from fellow players to cool it. "To be bold and brash and say, 'I'm going to go out and whip his ass,' I don't think there are enough lunch pails in the world to bring," says Beem. Sabbatini, not surprisingly, takes the opposite tack. "If what I say makes him play better, great," he says. "You know, I'd rather beat Tiger at his best than at his worst. If you went back and asked Johnny Miller or anybody, 'Would they rather just beat Jack Nicklaus, or beat Jack Nicklaus at his best?' you know what they would say."

Sabbatini grins, obviously eager for the chance to make a second impression. "Sure, the whole Tiger thing, I've taken some grief," he says. "But all it's really done for me is given me more desire to play harder and play better and prove myself even more."