FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Rory Sabbatini was on an incredible run even before winning the Crowne Plaza Invitational last year.
Three consecutive top-three finishes, including the runner-up spot at the Masters, came in the stretch before Sabbatini won a three-man playoff at Colonial.
Sabbatini hasn’t won since. And that trio of tournaments where the South African was so good last spring before getting to Hogan’s Alley? He missed two cuts and finished 67th in the other this time.
Yet, Sabbatini insists that he’s playing better going into this year’s Colonial than he was then.
“Last year, even though my scores showed one thing, I wasn’t very happy with the state of my game,” Sabbatini said Wednesday. “It’s been a frustrating year for me. I feel like I’m hitting the ball better than I ever have in my career. I’m not scoring as well as I’d like.”
The numbers seem to back up both of his contentions.
Sabbatini returns to Colonial as the 14th-ranked player in the world, two spots higher than at the same point a year ago. But his scoring average of 71 is more than a stroke higher than last season, and he has finished under par only four times his last 20 rounds.
While Sabbatini tries to defend his title, starting Thursday, 2000 champion Phil Mickelson is back at Colonial for the first time in three years.
Mickelson is also coming back from a week off spent partly on a golf course, acting not playing. He played himself in a scene shot for an episode of HBO’s “Entourage” scheduled to air later this year.
The world’s No. 2 golfer got plenty of air time leading up to Colonial. He was featured in the tournament’s promotional television spots for sponsor Crowne Plaza, meeting with actual people he’d hit with golf balls and Mickelson look-a-likes.
“They were fun to do,” Mickelson said.
But now the focus is back on golf.
Before heading to Texas, Mickelson practiced last weekend and then played Tuesday at Torrey Pines, the hometown course where he grew up playing and the site of the U.S. Open next month.
“I’m hitting the ball well. The short game is coming around. I think it will be a good week,” he said. “This is a great course for ball-striking. I am excited to play a course with such tight fairways and firm fairways with some of the changes that I’ve made in the last year. …. I was looking at these tee shots differently. It was kind of cool.”
While length is a premium at so many modern-day layouts, the old-style par-70, 7,054-yard tree-lined Colonial course is pretty much the same as it was when Ben Hogan won there five times from 1946-59.
Five of the world’s top 10 players are here, including No. 5 Jim Furyk, who last year was the only one from that group.
Two weeks after getting his first pro victory on the Nationwide Tour, former SMU golfer Colt Knost is playing about an hour from where he went to high school. He shot 62 in a pro-am round Monday, including a double-eagle at the 611-yard 11th hole when he knocked a 3-wood shot in from 290 yards.
“Honestly, I don’t know even now what I shot,” Knost insisted Wednesday. “It was just one of those days. All of the pins were in the middle of the green, it wasn’t set up too hard.”
Furyk got into the playoff last year with Bernhard Langer and Sabbatini, who ended it with a 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole. The last two Colonials have finished with playoffs after none the previous 12 years.
Hogan is still the only player to win consecutive Colonials. He did that twice (1946-47, 1952-53).
Sabbatini was 27th two weeks ago at The Players Championship, his best finish in eight tournaments he’s played since consecutive top-three finishes in January. He said his game suffered after he had the flu early in the season.
“I played well, got sick. … It took a lot out of me,” Sabbatini said. “By the end of the West Coast, I was so drained of energy, bascially I let a couple of areas creep in my game. You start practicing bad habits, just not being as focused as you need to be out there, and all of a sudden those habits are kind of ingrained.”
That led Sabbatini to start overanalyzing his game, something he said he won’t do at Colonial.
“I’m really just trying to take it easy this week,” Sabbatini said. “I am just going to go out there and just focus on hitting the golf ball and putting it in the hole.”