OAKMONT, Pa. — On Tuesday, when anything still seemed possible, Rory Sabbatini walked across the sprawling practice putting green, broke into the personal space of one Tiger Woods, the player he says is more beatable now than ever before, and asked if he could join him for a practice round first thing Wednesday morning.
“I don’t play practice rounds at majors on Wednesdays,” Tiger said.
Oh, the South African golfer thought to himself, then why is your name on the sign-up sheet?
Sabbatini, a winner at Colonial earlier this month and a certain player for the international team at the Presidents Cup in September, had a little extra incentive to beat Tiger this week at the U.S. Open. Instead, by early Sunday afternoon, he was predicting that Tiger would win his 13th major.
“You look at the leaderboard, and there’s Tiger with all his experience, with beautiful distance control on these greens — he’s got to be considered the guy,” said the native South African, who now lives in Dallas.
Sabbatini was asked who he was rooting for.
“I’d like to see Justin Rose do it,” Sabbatini said. “He’s a nice kid, he works hard and he’s got a beautiful game.”
Is there anybody on the leaderboard who could beat Tiger?
“Aaron could,” he said, referring to the third-round leader, Aaron Baddeley. He didn’t sound thoroughly convincing.
It was not surprising that Angel Cabrera’s name never came up. Not many would have predicted his victory before Sunday’s final round.
Sabbatini, who shot rounds of 73, 77, 78 and 73, said he’d “quit golf” if he had to play Oakmont every year. “If I was the defending champion and the U.S. Open was at Oakmont, I wouldn’t play,” he said. That comment, of course, is not to be taken seriously. It’s meant as humor — Sabbatini’s way of making a point.
For that Wednesday practice round, Sabbatini played with Trip Kuehne instead, who lost in the final of the U.S. Amateur to Woods in 1994. “We had a ball,” Sabbatini said. Tiger was not missed.
Sabbatini said he would not play between now and the British Open, when he will try, again, to beat Tiger Woods in a major.
“I think I’m in his head now,” Sabbatini said. Yes, that was meant as humor, too.
As Sabbatini was gathering his shoes and hats in the Oakmont locker room, Woods was arriving in the players’ parking lot to begin to prepare for his fourth round. They almost crossed paths, but didn’t. That’s how it went last week. At Carnoustie in July, he’ll have another chance.