Rory Sabbatini had just made a birdie on 13, on Sunday at Augusta, and for a minute there he had the lead. Zach Johnson was behind him, Tiger Woods was behind him, and Sabbatini's playing partner, Phil Mickelson, was way behind him.
\nLefty, the defending champion, was enjoying the Rory Sabo Show: the chomping on the Nicorette; the two waggles and let-'er-rip drives; the aggressive strut; the thick disco-era belt. And as Sabbatini went about his business, something occurred to Phil: The man was playing to win.
\n No oldtimey feel player had won a major since Payne Stewart in 1999, but Sabbatini was looking as if he could do it. First time in contention in a major, and he didn't look a bit scared, even with Tiger on the big board.
\nLast week, in a manner of speaking, the pattern continued. At the Players, Sabbatini showed he wasn't scared to give a truthful analysis of Tiger's game. It was probably not a smart thing to do, but at least it was entertaining.
\nThe pros can be amazingly insightful about swings, courses, psyches, tendencies and one another. But almost everything they say for public consumption falls within the limits of a well-established code. For instance, to generalize, they\ndon't like Johnny Miller as an announcer because he says what they're thinking but would never reveal.
\n Every so often, though, a pro lets something slip out. And that's what happened last week when Sabbatini was asked about Tiger.
\nThe 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 the 57th win of Woods's career.
\nSabbatini's slip-up, his moment of candor, came after the first round of the Players, in which Woods shot a 75 and Sabbatini a 67. With the microphones on and the tape recorders running, he offered, in an accent that mingles his South African childhood with his Dallas adulthood, this gem: "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 watch the show. I'm there to participate.
\n"I've seen Tiger when there's not a facet of his game that you're not amazed by. But I think on Sunday (at Wachovia) he struggled out there. He had to battle for that win. And I think that made me realize that he's as beatable as ever. I've seen him when he figures it out. It's scary. I don't want to see that anymore. I like the new Tiger."
\nIt's a curious statement, given that Tiger has won 26% of his Tour starts, while Sabbatini has won 1%. But if you can get past that, the interesting thing about the quote is this: It's true. If you're watching closely, you've probably made this observation: Tiger is way more inaccurate with the driver than he was in his 2000 prime; he doesn't make the little ones as automatically; and his focus\nis not as hyperintense. He has other things in his life, and on his mind.
\nSo how is it that Tiger has won nine of his last 13 events? Because he's still better than everybody else. And because, in various ways and for various reasons, he has a long list of players beaten before a shot is fired. Ernie Els is on the list, and so are Sergio Garcia, Stephen Ames and bunches of others. Every time Woods wins, the list grows.
\n\nWhen Woods was asked after his Friday round about Sabbatini's statement, there was a hint of mirth on his face. Tiger said , "If I remember the quote correctly, he said he likes the new Tiger. I figure I've won nine of 12 and I've won three times this year, the same amount he's won in his career. So I like the new Tiger as well."
\nEarlier, on another subject, he had joked that his superior memory is what got him\ninto Stanford. So of course he remembered the quote correctly, and of course he had all the numbers down cold. He always does. Someday he may need a little something extra to beat Sabbatini. Did Sabo give Woods the gift that will keep on giving, as Ames did when he made a little joke about Tiger's crooked driving? Tiger responded by beating Ames in last year's Accenture Match Play by the score of 9 and 8. When it's useful, Tiger remembers everything.
\nLast week, there were columnists and commentators portraying Sabbatini as the ultimate ogre, the Tour'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 favorite playing partner on Tour, named first by 25% of the players.
\n That title normally\ngoes to a pro who habitually grouses about the state of his game or his lousy luck, but the knock on Sabbatini is different: As someone who plays quickly, he is famously and undiplomatically intolerant of slow play, which is a chronic problem on Tour.
\n One year when Ben Crane was perfecting his fairway practice swing 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 it was the wrong thing to do, but he made a point that needed to be made.
\nSabbatini's also not afraid to show his personality, which sets him apart from many of his touring brethren; neither is his wife, Amy, afraid to show hers, which sets her apart from many in the sisterhood.
\nLast year, when Sabbatini was paired with noted dawdler Nick Faldo,\nAmy Sabbatini wore a T-shirt stenciled with the words keep up. It was a good look. (In the past Rory has worn camouflage pants in competition to remind viewers of U.S. troops overseas.) There's much to like with both of them.
\nRory's excellent about signing autographs. ("Hey, they stand out here all day in the hot sun watching us," he says.) Husband and wife are involved in charity work to raise money for wounded veterans. He doesn't duck reporters. In an interview last Saturday, Sabbatini said his Thursday remarks were misunderstood.
\n "Tiger took them as a stab at him," Sabbatini said, adding that the main point he was trying to make is that he wants to challenge Tiger because he's the best player in the world and that now you might actually have a chance against him.
\nHe picked up on Saturday where he left off on Thursday.
\n"Tiger's having a harder time finding his focus," Sabbatini said of his fellow Nike player. They're both 31. "He's hit a few shots that have brought doubt in his mind. It happens to all of us. Tiger Woods in the early 2000s was the most dominant player who ever lived. But right now Tiger's struggling a\nlittle bit. You see that in the scores he's making here."
\nAt the Players, Woods finished 37th, Sabbatini 44th.
\nWhere Woods goes after his rounds is a secret, but Sabbatini is always out in the open. He leads a sort of cowboy-commune life, Tour-style. He stays most weeks in a tricked-out trailer with Amy and their two children, Harley, 3, and Tylie, 1.
\n Last week the trailer people were situated in a circle on a grass field adjacent to a public parking\nlot. Davis Love III was installed there, as were Chris Couch and four other pros. Sabbatini's caddie and close friend, Kevin Fasbender, hung out there some. So did the caddie's brother, Nathan, who drives the trailer from stop to stop. The Sabbatini's nanny, Allie Kearns, was in and out. The grill was often going.
\n "We're like one big extended family," says Sabbatini.
\nIt's a good thing he's not flying solo because Tour life is not one long joyride. There's real stress. You lose when you're in contention. You miss cuts. Your confidence comes and goes. Your technique does too. Your body fails you. You have to be correct every day, with the public watching. Most players don't want to add to the stress by opening their mouths.
\nRory Sabbatini is not one of those people. He doesn't plan to apologize to Tiger what would he apologize for? He said what he believes. He tries to keep things in perspective. At the Colonial he'll be playing in the pro-am with a Marine who returned from Iraq with 80% of his frontal lobe lost in an explosion. Besides, Tiger's doing all right.
\n "He's won, what," Sabbatini asked rhetorically, "12 or 13 majors?" It's 12, but you see his point, right?