Rory Sabbatini admits that he can be prickly and impatient, but the South African also says that he's misunderstood

Rory Sabbatini admits that he can be prickly and impatient, but the South African also says that he’s misunderstood

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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.

Has 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?

I 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.

Have 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.

Can 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.

The 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?

No.

If 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?

In 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?

Well, 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.

Do 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.

In 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.

It 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.

Why 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.

When 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.

You’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.

You’ve played in 33 majors.
Do you know how many top-10s
you have in those starts?

One.

Why 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.

It must be maddening.
Yeah, it is. It’s extremely frustrating,
extremely disappointing.

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].

So 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.

In 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.

Given 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.

Are 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.

A 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.

Could 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.

After 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.

Even 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.”

Would you consider a TV job? Golf
coverage could use more candor.

I don’t know. That could be scary.
Putting me in front of a camera
would probably make a few people
nervous—probably the producers.

But you could be the next
Johnny Miller.

No, 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.

What would you have done it you weren’t a golfer?

I 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.

What kind of student were you growing up in Durban, South Africa?

I 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.

Are you still a numbers guy?

I like to challenge myself with the Sudoku puzzles.

What was it like growing up under apartheid?

The 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.

It could have easily had the opposite effect.

Definitely. 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.

Do 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.

In 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?

With 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.

Do 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.