Life begins on opening day, but last week's Mercedes Championships
was more about being born again. The first real tournament of the
PGA Tour season featured a back-nine battle on the Sabbath
between two players seeking rebirth, of both the spiritual and
physical variety. When the duel was over, it was tough to tell
whose journey had ended in victory.
On Sunday evening Rory Sabbatini, the young South African by way
of Tucson, slowly made his way across the grounds of the Kapalua
Golf Club in Maui, hugging tournament officials, offering
handshakes to reporters and giving away assorted accoutrements
from his person to adoring fans. After receiving Sabbatini's
sweat-drenched hat, one fan profusely thanked its former owner,
only to be cut off. "No, thank you," Sabbatini said. Nearby, a
worn-out Jim Furyk sat slumped in front of reporters. A few
moments earlier the decisive putt had been struck, and Furyk
described the reaction. "It's a pretty sick feeling," he said.
Appearances to the contrary, it was Furyk who emerged the winner
over a taut final day; the sick feeling he described was not his
but Sabbatini's, after the 24-year-old missed a three-footer on
the 72nd hole that would have forced a playoff with Furyk.
Despite that egregious lapse, it's not quite right to call
Sabbatini the loser. He displayed too much heart for that.
Sabbatini had come to Maui with his golf swing in transition and
his personal life in upheaval. He said he was "totally
unprepared, physically and mentally," for the tournament. Known
for being fiery and emotional on the course and sarcastic and
fun-loving off it, Sabbatini was reeling from the recent
dissolution of his engagement to the woman he had been dating
since they were both students at Arizona. Over the previous six
weeks he had mustered up the enthusiasm for only four casual
rounds of golf--and lost twice to his dad, a nine-handicapper.
Sabbatini stunned himself, and everyone else, by taking the lead
with an eight-under 65 last Saturday, the low round of the week.
Afterward he spilled his guts to reporters, displaying a
"I've done a lot of soul-searching in the last couple of weeks,"
Sabbatini said in slow, mellow tones. "My focus this week is
letting things flow. If I don't make a birdie? Whatever. There
are millions of people in the world who could care less. I'm
having more fun just interacting with the gallery, even if it's a
five-word conversation to let them know, hey, they're important."
Eyes welling with tears, he added, "I've had a definite bringing
back to the church in the last couple of weeks."
Furyk, too, profited from an enlarged perspective. It had been
2 1/2 months since he was sidelined by a wrist injury, but the
anti-inflammatory medicine he's taking seems to be working on
more than his torn cartilage. Of his sixth career victory Furyk
said, "There was one key: attitude. Whenever I started to get mad
at myself, I would remember that my goal was to be able to
complete all 72 holes."
A quarterback at Manheim Township High in Lancaster, Pa., Furyk,
30, was at a Baltimore Ravens game last October when he happened
upon a game of catch in the parking lot. Seeing a lazy spiral
cutting through the sky, he tried to pick off the pass but
slipped on the cement and landed on his right wrist. ("I still
broke up the play," Furyk says with pride.) An MRI revealed a
cartilage tear, and the injury knocked Furyk out of the Tour
Championship, the Sun City Million Dollar Challenge and the World
Match Play two weeks ago in Australia. His pre-Maui preparation
consisted of chipping and putting and a lone 18 holes with his
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., neighbor David Duval six days before the
Mercedes. The results were not encouraging. "He got me 7-5-3-1 on
the front nine," Furyk says.
Furyk, then, was in a familiar position heading into the final
round of the Mercedes--four strokes off the pace. (Hitting only a
few warm-up balls each day, he had scraped it around well enough
to open with three consecutive 69s on the par-73 Plantation
Course.) On Sunday, Furyk stormed into contention with birdies on
the first two holes and then eagled number 5 by rolling in a
60-foot putt. When he sank a 10-footer for birdie at the 7th
hole, he and Sabbatini were tied for the lead. The remaining 11
holes pulsated with seesaw action that was equal parts gutsy
shotmaking and silly mistakes.
The short par-4 16th turned out to be critical. Furyk made a
brilliant par save from behind the steeply pitched green to stay
at 17 under, the kind of Houdini act that has been his trademark
since at least the '97 Ryder Cup, when he downed Nick Faldo by
holing back-to-back chips midway through the back nine. Sabbatini
got too cute with a pitching wedge approach at 16, spinning his
ball off the green.
The 5'9", 160-pound Sabbatini's long, aggressive swing is
self-taught, but since January 2000 he has been working with Dean
Reinmuth to tighten his wedge play, a weakness for a player who,
pound for pound, might be the longest hitter in the game.
Sabbatini was supposed to overhaul his short game this
off-season, but after a single session Reinmuth called a hiatus
because his pupil's head was not in the right place. Sabbatini's
poor wedge at 16 proved costly when he blew a four-footer for par
to fall back into a tie with Furyk, who at 18 produced a clutch
two-putt from 130 feet to secure what proved to be the winning
Furyk's playing partner, Ernie Els, who had begun the final round
tied with Furyk in third place, could have forced a playoff with
an eagle at the last, but he hit a sickly hook into the hazard
left of the green with his approach shot. It was an appropriate
end to Els's week. If Furyk and Sabbatini had come to Maui
seeking spiritual renewal, the Big Easy was searching for
something a little stronger, like, say, a full-blown exorcism.
A year ago at the Mercedes, Els lost a tense mano a mano to Tiger
Woods, and the defeat seemed to break his will. After that he
went on to become a chronic runner-up to Woods, including twice
at major championships. "Last year, if I had won this
championship, who knows?" Els ruminated on the eve of the
tournament. "It could have been a little bit different. From here
on, Tiger was very dominant. I think about the putts he made here
last year, the way he got out of trouble last year. It kind of
set the scene. Who knows, the guy who wins here, the same kind of
flow might come his way."
Els was certainly in the flow during the second round, when he
shot a bogeyless 66 to take a four-stroke lead. After a slow
start on Saturday, Els finished the front nine with four straight
birdies and looked as if he were going to run away with the
tournament, but he came unglued beginning with a sloppy bogey on
12. "I lost concentration, lost momentum, and then I lost the
lead," he said. "It all seemed to happen in about two seconds."
At the exact moment in the third round that Els was missing a par
putt at 15, Sabbatini was spinning a sand wedge into the cup at
the 16th for an eagle, a three-shot swing that propelled
Sabbatini to a two-stroke lead over Els and five up on the rest
of the field. With a double bogey at 18, Els shot a crippling 41
on the back nine. After his final-hole disaster on Sunday, the
poster boy for posttraumatic Tiger syndrome said, "I played well
enough to win, I just couldn't get out of my own way." So what's
Els's foil from last year was having his own problems. This was
Woods's first public appearance of the new year, not including a
sideline stint at the Orange Bowl game, when he set the golf
world's hair on fire with a new 'do. By the time he arrived in
Maui, the man chasing the Golden Bear's records had gone from
golden to bare, his head shaved down to the nubs. Apparently
blonds really do have more fun, because a rusty Woods opened the
Mercedes with two of his squirreliest ball-striking rounds in
recent memory. His most solid contact seemed to come when he
slammed his club into the turf in frustration, usually after
slashing an errant shot into the waist-high buffalo grass. On
Friday, Woods needed a 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to
get back to even par on the round. His 73 extended, barely, his
streak of PGA Tour rounds at par or better to 49.
Afterward Woods dipped into a tribal dialect known on Tour as
Calcavecch-ese to describe his round: "Two unplayables," he said,
sounding like a man reading a shopping list, "couple snipes,
couple shrimps, couple blocks, three three-whiffs, couple chunks,
couple balls in divots. Other than that, it was a good day." On
Saturday, Woods found his swing but putted miserably, and
following his 68 said, "Could've been a 60-nothing if I'd made
anything on the greens." A closing 69 left him in a four-way tie
for eighth, his worst finish since last August's Buick Open.
One so-so performance doesn't change the fact that Woods still
sets the pace on the Tour. In the afterglow of his third victory
in 15 months, Furyk said, "I'm proud of the record I've
accumulated, but I feel as if I can still make the jump to the
next level. I'd like to do that."
Still, life is swell these days for Furyk. He married his
longtime girlfriend, the former Tabitha Skartved, over the
Thanksgiving weekend, and they recently broke ground on a second
home in Maui--"my favorite spot in the entire world," Furyk says.
Asked for a tale of the tape, he sheepishly admitted that the
homeowners' association in his development mandates a house of at
least 5,000 square feet. Put his new Mercedes 500 SL convertible
(which came with the winner's check of $630,000) in the driveway
and, well, not bad for a kid from a small town in the farm
country of eastern Pennsylvania.
What of Sabbatini? He was last seen on Sunday evening signing
autographs in the parking lot, underneath a vivid sunset. "It was
a wonderful week," he said. "Like starting over from scratch."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BLACK HOLEThe 18th (right) was the undoing of both Sabbatini (above) and Els, who were in contention to the very end.