Lone Wolf

Lone Wolf

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Sabbatini felt the wrath of Tiger after essentially calling out Woods for the second tournament in a row.
David Walberg/SI

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.

Lefty, 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.

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.

Last 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.

The 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

don’t like Johnny Miller as an announcer
because he says what they’re thinking but
would never reveal.

Every so often,
though, a pro lets something slip out. And
that’s what 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 the 57th win of Woods’s career.

Sabbatini’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.

“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.”

It’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

is not as hyperintense. He has other
things in his life, and on his mind.

So 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.

When 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.”

Earlier, on another subject, he had joked
that his superior memory is 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 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.

Last 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.

That title normally

goes 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.

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.

Sabbatini’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.

Last year, when Sabbatini was
paired with noted dawdler Nick Faldo,

Amy 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.

Rory’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.

“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.

He picked up on Saturday where he
left off on Thursday.

“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

little bit. You see that in the scores he’s
making here.”

At the Players, Woods finished
37th, Sabbatini 44th.

Where 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.

Last week
the trailer people were situated in a circle
on a grass field adjacent to a public parking

lot. 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.

“We’re like
one big extended family,” says Sabbatini.

It’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.

Rory 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.

“He’s won, what,” Sabbatini
asked rhetorically, “12 or 13 majors?”
It’s 12, but you see his point, right?