MONTREAL — If the matches had gone a different way — if everything was reversed and it was the I-Team that won — the Woody Austin role would have been played by Rory Sabbatini, the South African who is a relentlessly good talker and a pretty good golfer, too.
But Saturday afternoon, he was reduced to cheerleader. Gary Player, his captain and a fellow South African, gave Sabbatini the afternoon off. Each team has 12 players, but only 10 players suited up for each side in the Saturday morning alternate-shot matches and the Saturday afternoon better-ball matches. Sabbatini played in the morning with Trevor Immelman and lost to Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan; he was benched for the second session.
“I’d like to be playing now, obviously, but the captain has to sit down two players, and it’s a hard decision, and captain Player decided to sit me down,” Sabbatini said, with a diplomacy that is not his natural key. Asked how he got the news, Sabbatini said, “Very casually, while riding in a cart with one of Gary’s assistants, who just said, ‘You’re off this afternoon.’ So I’m out here trying to root on the others.”
At times, Sabbatini sounds more like he’s from Texas, where he’s lived most of his adult life, than South Africa. He plays the PGA Tour full time, stays most weeks in a giant mobile home and has never made much of an effort to be one of the boys.
This week, at Royal Montreal, was different. He still wore one of his big ole’ Texas belt buckles, as the players on both teams were encouraged to wear whatever belt and shoes they felt comfortable with. But during the four days of the Presidents Cup, the whole lone-wolf, say-what-you-really-think thing does not fly. On Saturday, he was talking like a bench player on a team that was trailing big. He was the height or propriety. He was appropriate. It made you miss the old Rory, the one we saw back in May. Trailing will do it to you.
The leading squad had a vacancy for the new-guy-makes-good role, and Woody Austin filled it. Not just for the pond incident, which will follow him around for the rest of his life. But for what was behind his involuntary dip: doing everything he possibly could to get his team a point.
It’s strange, comparing the R-man and the Woodman. They’re nothing alike and they’re totally alike. Most weeks on Tour, Woody eats most of his dinners by himself and has nothing like a posse around him. He does his own thing on the course, goes back to the room and watches TV. When he talks to reporters, he sometimes says things that make sense in his head but not to the public at large. One of his themes is that if he could putt as well as Tiger Woods he could win a bunch of tournaments. First off, it’s not true. Second, putting is, what, roughly 40 percent of the game? As a theory, it’s slightly ridiculous, but in his mind he’s not bragging. He’s doing what Rory Sabbatini does: telling the truth from his perspective.
On Saturday at Royal Montreal, he and his partner for the week, Phil Mickelson, dismantled Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby in the morning foursomes, 5 and 4. In a Saturday afternoon better-ball match, Austin and Mickelson eked out a half point against Goosen and Adam Scott. The Americans were 1 down coming off the 15th green, where this time Mickelson went Jacques Costeau. To play a shot from the bank of a pond, he took off his left shoe, size 13, and put on the left New Balance sneaker of his longtime caddie, Jim Mackay, also size 13.
Austin followed Friday’s swim on the 14th with birdies on the 16th, 17th and 18th to win the match. On Saturday, Mickelson and Austin were 2 down after 16 holes. Austin birdied the 17th and Mickelson the 18th, and the match ended in a tie — or halved or all square, depending on what language you speak.
“You can see why Phil Mickelson is the No. 2 player in the world, because he pretty much did it all by himself,” Austin said when it was over. He was mad at himself for his poor play — he’s often mad at himself. But he was relishing where he was: on a team, and in the thick of it. “We don’t normally get to have this much fun together,” he said.
Then he went off and joined his teammates.