Rory Sabbatini hadjust made a birdie on 13, on Sunday at Augusta, and for a minute there he hadthe lead. Zach Johnson was behind him, Tiger Woods was behind him, andSabbatini's playing partner, Phil Mickelson, was way behind him. Lefty, thedefending champion, was enjoying the Rory Sabo Show: the chomping on theNicorette; the two waggles and let-'er-rip drives; the aggressive strut; thethick disco-era belt. And as Sabbatini went about his business, somethingoccurred to Phil: The man was playing to win. No old-timey feel player had wona major since Payne Stewart in 1999, but Sabbatini was looking as if he coulddo it. First time in contention in a major, and he didn't look a bit scared,even with Tiger on the big board.
Last week, in amanner of speaking, the pattern continued. At the Players, Sabbatini showed hewasn't scared to give a truthful analysis of Tiger's game. It was probably nota smart thing to do, but at least it was entertaining.
The pros can beamazingly insightful about swings, courses, psyches, tendencies and oneanother. But almost everything they say for public consumption falls within thelimits of a well-established code. For instance, to generalize, they don't likeJohnny Miller as an announcer because he says what they're thinking but wouldnever reveal. Every so often, though, a pro lets something slip out. And that'swhat happened last week when Sabbatini was asked about Tiger.
The previous week,in Charlotte, Sabbatini was paired with Woods in the last group on Sunday,shooting a 74 to Tiger's lucky-break 69, the latter good enough to secure the57th win of Woods's career. Sabbatini's slip-up, his moment of candor, cameafter the first round of the Players, in which Woods shot a 75 and Sabbatini a67. With the microphones on and the tape recorders running, he offered, in anaccent that mingles his South African childhood with his Dallas adulthood, thisgem: "I think Tiger's more beatable than ever. When people play with Tiger,they stand and watch the show and [don't] participate. I'm not someone to watchthe show. I'm there to participate.
"I've seenTiger when there's not a facet of his game that you're not amazed by. But Ithink on Sunday [at Wachovia] he struggled out there. He had to battle for thatwin. And I think that made me realize that he's as beatable as ever. I've seenhim when he figures it out. It's scary. I don't want to see that anymore. Ilike the new Tiger."
It's a curiousstatement, given that Tiger has won 26% of his Tour starts, while Sabbatini haswon 1%. But if you can get past that, the interesting thing about the quote isthis: It's true. If you're watching closely, you've probably made thisobservation: Tiger is way more inaccurate with the driver than he was in his2000 prime; he doesn't make the little ones as automatically; and his focus isnot as hyperintense. He has other things in his life, and on his mind.
So how is it thatTiger has won nine of his last 13 events? Because he's still better thaneverybody else. And because, in various ways and for various reasons, he has along list of players beaten before a shot is fired. Ernie Els is on the list,and so are Sergio García, Stephen Ames and bunches of others. Every time Woodswins, the list grows.
When Woods wasasked after his Friday round about Sabbatini's statement, there was a hint ofmirth on his face. Tiger said, "If I remember the quote correctly, he saidhe likes the new Tiger. I figure I've won nine of 12 and I've won three timesthis year, the same amount he's won in his career. So I like the new Tiger aswell." Earlier, on another subject, he had joked that his superior memoryis what got him into Stanford. So of course he remembered the quote correctly,and of course he had all the numbers down cold. He always does. Someday he mayneed a little something extra to beat Sabbatini. Did Sabo give Woods the giftthat will keep on giving, as Ames did when he made a little joke about Tiger'scrooked driving? Tiger responded by beating Ames in last year's Accenture MatchPlay by the score of 9 and 8. When it's useful, Tiger remembers everything.
Last week, therewere columnists and commentators portraying Sabbatini as the ultimate ogre, theTour's Shrek. Sabbatini's reputation wasn't helped any by a recent SI poll(Golf Plus, May 8) of 72 Tour players in which he was voted the least favoriteplaying partner on Tour, named first by 25% of the players. That title normallygoes to a pro who habitually grouses about the state of his game or his lousyluck, but the knock on Sabbatini is different: As someone who plays quickly, heis famously and undiplomatically intolerant of slow play, which is a chronicproblem on Tour. One year when Ben Crane was perfecting his fairway practiceswing during the fourth round of the Booz Allen Classic, Sabbatini, fed up,marched up to a green without his playing partner and holed out. Of course itwas the wrong thing to do, but he made a point that needed to be made.
Sabbatini's alsonot afraid to show his personality, which sets him apart from many of histouring brethren; neither is his wife, Amy, afraid to show hers, which sets herapart from many in the sisterhood. Last year, when Sabbatini was paired withnoted dawdler Nick Faldo, Amy Sabbatini wore a T-shirt stenciled with the wordsKEEP UP. It was a good look. (In the past Rory has worn camouflage pants incompetition to remind viewers of U.S. troops overseas.)
There's much tolike with both of them. Rory's excellent about signing autographs. ("Hey,they stand out here all day in the hot sun watching us," he says.) Husbandand wife are involved in charity work to raise money for wounded veterans. Hedoesn't duck reporters. In an interview last Saturday, Sabbatini said hisThursday remarks were misunderstood. "Tiger took them as a stab athim," Sabbatini said, adding that the main point he was trying to make isthat he wants to challenge Tiger because he's the best player in the world--andthat now you might actually have a chance against him.
He picked up onSaturday where he left off on Thursday. "Tiger's having a harder timefinding his focus," Sabbatini said of his fellow Nike player. They're both31. "He's hit a few shots that have brought doubt in his mind. It happensto all of us. Tiger Woods in the early 2000s was the most dominant player whoever lived. But right now Tiger's struggling a little bit. You see that in thescores he's making here." At the Players, Woods finished 37th, Sabbatini44th.
Where Woods goesafter his rounds is a secret, but Sabbatini is always out in the open. He leadsa sort of cowboy-commune life, Tour-style. He stays most weeks in a tricked-outtrailer with Amy and their two children, Harley, 3, and Tylie, 1. Last week thetrailer people were situated in a circle on a grass field adjacent to a publicparking lot. Davis Love III was installed there, as were Chris Couch and fourother pros. Sabbatini's caddie and close friend, Kevin Fasbender, hung outthere some. So did the caddie's brother, Nathan, who drives the trailer fromstop to stop. The Sabbatini's nanny, Allie Kearns, was in and out. The grillwas often going. "We're like one big extended family," saysSabbatini.
It's a good thinghe's not flying solo because Tour life is not one long joyride. There's realstress. You lose when you're in contention. You miss cuts. Your confidencecomes and goes. Your technique does too. Your body fails you. You have to becorrect every day, with the public watching. Most players don't want to add tothe stress by opening their mouths. Rory Sabbatini is not one of those people.He doesn't plan to apologize to Tiger--what would he apologize for? He saidwhat he believes. He tries to keep things in perspective. At the Colonial he'llbe playing in the pro-am with a Marine who returned from Iraq with 80% of hisfrontal lobe lost in an explosion. Besides, Tiger's doing all right. "He'swon, what," Sabbatini asked rhetorically, "12 or 13 majors?"
It's 12, but yousee his point, right?
• Read Inside Golfby Gary Van Sickle at GOLF.com.
Sabbatini's not afraid to show his personality, whichSETS HIM APART FROM MANY OF HIS TOURING BRETHREN; neither is his wife, whichsets her apart from many in the sisterhood.
Photograph by David Walberg
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)
BIG CHILL Sabbatini felt the wrath of Tiger after essentially calling out Woods for the second tournament in a row.
TRAILER TYPES Sabbatini, his family and his caddie, Fasbender, can usually be found hanging with the Tour's RV crowd.
PETE FONTAINE/ICON SMI
Sabbatini opened with a five-under 67 but never recovered from a second-round79 and wound up 44th.