Angus Murray
By Alan Bastable
Sunday, March 14, 2010

In the fourth round of the BMW Championship in September, Rory Sabbatini found himself in a tortoise-and-hare pairing with the deliberate 26-year-old, Kevin Na. It had been more than four years since Sabbatini, in an infamous fit of slow-play rage, left Ben Crane in a dust cloud on the 17th hole at the Booz Allen Classic—and Sabbo was again feeling the urge to bolt. Only this time...he didn't. He calmly waited until the round concluded then pulled Na aside to suggest he put a little pep in his step.

\nHas Sabbatini gone civil? Well, sort of. Sabbo still abhors slow play, speaks with startling candor, and scowls when shots go awry. But he's lightening up. He's working to channel his temper, he says, and enjoy life's simple pleasures—like Sudoku, fast cars and fixing things around his Dallas home. He's goofy (did you see those photos?) and self-aware (his website serenades visitors with the reggae hit, "I Like to Move It"), and maybe, just maybe, Sabbo's starting to find some peace. "With age," he says, "everybody calms down, and eventually you get to that point where you think, You know what? It's not worth it." Sabbatini pauses. "I'm not at that bridge just yet, but I'd say I'm approaching it."


You have a reputation for being brash and outspoken. But your friends and family describe you as laid back and fun-loving. Have you been misrepresented?
\nI do think that there's been a lot of misrepresentation, but the situation is such that you can sit there and let it affect you, or you can go on and be who you are. But I really am Jekyll and Hyde. Off the golf course, I am very easygoing. But when I'm on the golf course, I'm intense. I want to win. I want to play as well as I can every day, every round, every shot. If I hit a bad shot, I know it was me who hit the bad shot, and I get frustrated with myself. That's probably been my biggest downfall over the years, being unable to just let things go and get on to the next shot instead of absorbing the negative.

Are you constantly struggling to tame your emotions?
I've always tried to improve on that. I've had a temper on the golf course since I was probably 7 years old. It's always a constant battle to try and curb that and use it. But at the same time, I don't think it's something I want to lose, because it's part of me. It's part of the fire that drives me.

\nHave you seen a psychologist?
No, I don't want to mess up their career [laughs]. I've tried it, but I've found that the more [peripheral] stuff you start paying attention to on the golf course, the less time you pay attention to your golf.

\nCan you give us an example of how you've mellowed?
Playing with Kevin Na at the BMW. I was having a real battle with him being as slow as he was. I let the round play out and at the end of the day I said, "Kevin, I just wanted to let you know that I thought you were extremely slow out there, and maybe it's something you could work on." As opposed to a few years ago when I blew up at Ben Crane.

\nThe Crane incident—you putted out on 17 while he was still back in the fairway—received a lot of attention. Do you think it did anything to improve the pace of play on Tour?

\nIf you were Tour commissioner, how would you tackle slow play?
I was raised with the perspective that when it's your turn to hit, you'd better hit. I really wish the Tour would implement a little bit more of the European Tour policy. On the European Tour, the Rules officials will come and jump on you as soon as you even start to fall out of position— whether you're on your time or not. How is it that can we play threesomes in a U.S. Open qualifier in three and a half hours, yet we can't play a Tour event in under five hours?

\nIn the final round of last year's Bridgestone Invitational, rules official John Paramor issued a slow play warning to Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington on the 16th tee. Harrington, clearly rattled, went on to make an 8 and lose to Woods by four, prompting some players to claim that Paramor was out of line. Was he?
\nWell, that's like saying, "There's a guy doing 40 in a 15 mph school zone, but since the kids are in school and there's no one in the crosswalk, we're just going to let it slide." It doesn't work like that. A rule is a rule, and it should be implemented regardless of who, when and why. If you hit a bad shot and it takes you five minutes to hit your next shot, then you better make up for it. That's the way it is. I don't think [Paramor's warning] was a bad choice. I just think it was unfortunate timing. You can't get upset with someone for doing what we're paying them to do.

\nDo you think that your playing partners might intentionally play slowly to tick you off?
Oh, sure. Maybe there's been an incident, but I couldn't tell who it was. There have been some commentators who have said that you can get under my skin by slow-playing me. But it's just at a point now where I do what I do and I try not to pay attention to what's going on around me. I've done my part to try and improve slow play and it hasn't done anything. I just don't care about that anymore.

\nIn a 2007 Sports Illustrated poll of 72 Tour pros, you were named their least favorite playing partner. Was that hurtful to hear?
No, because all the people who voted for me were probably all the same people I don't want to play golf with anyway. Everybody has their guys who when they get paired with them they just cringe. But I know who my true friends are out there. I know who the people are who I respect and admire, and that's the way it is.

\nIt didn't sting even a little bit?
No. Do you really think that Steve Elkington lost any sleep [in 2009] when he got nominated as the worst-dressed player on Tour? It's all perspective. Eric Axley finished just behind him—I actually think Eric dresses very well.

\nWhy do you suppose you don't mesh well with guys?
I can be abrasive. If I don't like you, I will tell you to your face, 'I don't like you.' I'm not going to go behind your back and be snide. I could have very easily not said anything to Kevin Na, but I don't think it's right to go behind his back and say something. There's no point beating around the bush— you just waste energy and time.

\nWhen you're on the range or in the locker room, do you sense animosity from other players?
You have to understand that there's a lot of hearsay on Tour. We all have our knitting circles. You may not know another player and then somebody else says something about him, so that's how you perceive him. For example, for the longest time I didn't get along with Phil [Mickelson]. I actually get along well with Phil now. Sometimes you have misunderstandings and it takes time before you realize it was a misunderstanding.

\nYou've always called things like you see them. Do you wish more players were as forthright?
How about this for a novel idea: how about the press represent accurately what we talk about, and then guys might actually be willing to talk. Otherwise, if we talk, we get burned for it, because it gets contorted and twisted. Shit, I could take a sentence off your [notes] there and make it sound completely opposite to what it means. But that wouldn't be the truth. I think there should be more integrity in the reporting and the representation of what we say, and in that situation you might find more players who are willing to talk.

\nYou've played in 33 majors. Do you know how many top-10s you have in those starts?

\nWhy do you think you have struggled on the biggest stages?
I don't know. I think I probably go into the majors trying to prepare myself too hard, trying to adapt my game to the course instead of just going out and playing my normal game. It's almost like I go in trying to be conservative instead of being the aggressive player that I am. You have to get out of your own way out there, and in the majors I keep stumbling over myself.

\nIt must be maddening.
Yeah, it is. It's extremely frustrating, extremely disappointing.\n

Did it embolden you to see onetime Tour winner Y.E. Yang beat Tiger at the PGA?
Well, the interesting thing I noted is that we've always seen Tiger be in certain positions and just dominate, and a couple of times last year we saw him struggle. Everyone knows he's mortal. We all know it. I don't know if [Yang's win] emboldens anybody, but it helps with the approach you take [when competing against Woods].

\nSo in that way Tiger proved he's vulnerable?
I wouldn't say he's vulnerable. When he's having a bad day, he's as good as anybody who's having a good day. You just have to go out there and perform better. You can't get caught up in everything he's doing. You have to be solely content on focusing on yourself.

\nIn 2007, you called Tiger 'more beatable than ever.' He then beat you by five shots when you played together.
Well, what I actually said was that at the Wachovia Championship [in May 2007], the way that he played on Sunday, I saw him hit shots that I'd never seen Tiger hit before. He had to struggle to win the event, and I've never, ever seen Tiger struggle to win an event, to actually have to battle himself. That's what I said—in that position he is beatable. And it's almost like we saw a little bit more of that [in 2009]. At the PGA, he had to battle himself in the final round. We saw it Sunday at the Tour Championship—he had to battle himself again. But I don't think it's a trend. It's like the guy who shoots 93 percent from the free-throw line. He can go and make his first 49, but by the time he gets to 100 he's going to have missed a couple.

\nGiven the avalanche of bad press you received the last time you opined about Tiger's game, are you now overly cautious when sizing him up?
No, I've never been overly cautious when I talk about Tiger. I am who I am. I'm entitled to my opinions just as anyone else is entitled to their opinions. That's the way it is. If anything, I went from paying Tiger a compliment to suddenly it's just turned the opposite direction. So if anything maybe I've just learned that you can't trust people to represent what you say truly.

\nAre you and Tiger cordial today?
We're cordial, but we're not friends. The tough thing with professional golfers is that we're typically not friends with other golfers, especially if we're playing against them. It's a tough position to be in because you're so competitive and golf is such a competitive game, such an individualistic game. It makes us so self-centered, so selfish—but you have to be to be successful. So inevitably in that situation it's hard to develop a relationship with someone you know you want to beat.

\nA few years ago you were toying with the idea of applying for U.S. citizenship. Are you still?
I don't know—would it improve my chances of making the Presidents Cup team? [Laughs.] It does pose a couple of challenges. I love representing South Africa at the World Cup. I love competing in the Presidents Cup. And giving up some of your heritage is sad in a way, so I haven't really decided what to do yet.

\nCould you maintain dual citizenship?
I could but...I don't know. I get ripped on by the South Africans and the South African media because I'm not South African enough. I get it because I contribute to some military charities in the U.S. but not to charities in South Africa. It's hard to meet everybody's expectations.

\nAfter winning the Byron Nelson Championship in May, you had a fairly quiet 2009. You've been working on your swing, right?
Yeah, I have. The beauty of winning is that it gives you a little time to tinker with your swing and make some adjustments. One of the things we've been wanting to do for a while is to shorten up my swing to make it a little more compact and hence a little more consistent. Anytime you start tinkering with your swing there's an adjustment period. It was a little longer than I thought it would be, but it's starting to click.

\nEven after winning you felt a need to tinker? That seems to be a trend on Tour.
Have you ever met a golfer who's content with the way he's playing? You're always looking for ways to improve your game. I bet most guys on Tour look at their stats and say, "You know, if I improve 2 percent here and 2 percent here, those will turn into some pretty big numbers throughout the year."

\nWould you consider a TV job? Golf coverage could use more candor.
\nI don't know. That could be scary. Putting me in front of a camera would probably make a few people nervous—probably the producers.

\nBut you could be the next Johnny Miller.
\nNo, I couldn't be Johnny. He was a great player in his own right, but he drives me nuts as a commentator.

How so?
To me, his style is very dry. It almost adds an anticlimactic sense [to the telecast]. He's not a bad commentator, but he refers to himself too much. Lanny Wadkins was also very good at referring to himself—well, if I was in this position, I would do this. Well, you're not in that position, so talk about what's actually going on. I like more of the [David] Feherty approach—a little bit of curry thrown in.

\nWhat would you have done it you weren't a golfer?
\nI don't know. I like to drive fast. I like driving racecars. I like fixing stuff. My wife says I should have been a salesman because I can sell manure to a plumber.

\nWhat kind of student were you growing up in Durban, South Africa?
\nI could have been a good student if I'd actually put some determination into it, but I didn't attend school very much. I skipped a lot. The only subjects I excelled at were math and geography.

\nAre you still a numbers guy?
\nI like to challenge myself with the Sudoku puzzles.

\nWhat was it like growing up under apartheid?
\nThe only thing I look back at now and think was really strange was having drills in school in case we had a terrorist attack. We were told to dive under our desks and things like that. The funny thing is when you grow up in that situation you don't really pay attention to it, because it's second nature to you. But looking back it also helped me be the person I'm today. I've learned to appreciate what I experienced then and what I experience now and how to differentiate the two. It probably made me the non-judgmental person I am today.

\nIt could have easily had the opposite effect.
\nDefinitely. If you grow up in it, and it gets instilled enough, it could be something that's so inane to you that you could never let it go. But at the same time, I grew up in a pretty liberal household and my parents exposed me and my siblings to the situation. It helped us become who we are today.

\nDo you regret anything you've said or done?
Hindsight is always 20/20, but I don't regret anything I've ever done. Obviously you wish you could do [some things] in a better way, but what's happened has happened, and you've got to learn to be a better person from those things.

\nIn late 2007, you famously withdrew from the final round of Tiger's Chevron World Challenge without alerting tournament officials. (Sabbatini eventually donated his last-place check of $170,000 to a military charity.) Would you like a do-over there?
\nWith Tiger's event, there were a lot of things that were circumstantial, that were personal, and at the time I didn't feel it was appropriate to discuss that with the media. My wife had seen three doctors in three different countries over the previous three weeks for a heart condition. On the Saturday, I said, "That's it. I can't compete worrying about her." My heart wasn't in it, and I'm the kind of person that if I'm not there to compete and win, I don't need to be there. When I withdrew I didn't even realize I'd get a paycheck, so then obviously I got reamed by the media for that. And then there was talk about me stealing a [courtesy] car. I went from leaving the car at the hotel as I was instructed to now I've stolen a car and I've become the evil Hulk.

\nDo you sometimes feel like everyone's out to get you?
Well, there are definitely times when it feels like there's a black cloud up there following me around. But at the same time, I know the people who really know me, and I know what they think of me. In the end, that's all that really matters.

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