By DOUG FERGUSON
KAPALUA, Hawaii – A new year on the PGA Tour always brings about some degree of change. Some players have new equipment deals. Others have pledged to get into better shape.
Perhaps the biggest change at Kapalua is Rory Sabbatini.
He’s gone silent.
Sabbatini is a spunky South African with tons of firepower in his game who is coming off his best season on the PGA Tour. He won at Colonial, played in the final group in two other events, was the only player to finish in the top 10 at all four playoff events, wound up fourth in the FedEx Cup and played on his first Presidents Cup team.
That’s not what made his year so memorable to the public, however, and it ended on a sour note.
Sabbatini is never bashful about saying whatever is on his mind, which is why he didn’t blush when stating that Woods looked “beatable as ever” after losing a final-round lead to him at the Wachovia Championship.
Actions proved far more powerful than words, however. His peers roundly criticized him – some publicly, most privately – when he withdrew last month from the final round of the Target World Challenge, pocketing last-place money of $170,000.
This wasn’t directed at Woods, the tournament host who arranged for sponsorship of a $5.5 million purse at a tournament that raises money to educate children. But it was different from a WD at a regular PGA Tour event because a.) the size of the last-place check, b.) it was guaranteed money in the silly season and c.) his bold challenge to Woods.
More than anything, in the words of Mark Calcavecchia, it was “Rory being Rory.”
Sabbatini’s agent later said he withdrew because of shin splints, that he went home Saturday night to get them worked on, but there was no improvement and Sabbatini didn’t want to risk it. This rang hollow, however, because locker room attendants said he packed up Saturday afternoon and gave away all his gear – sweaters, shoes, balls.
Tournament officials had no idea what happened to his courtesy car until late Sunday night or early Monday morning. Turns out his caddie had it, presumably giving the boss a ride to the airport.
So what really happened?
Asked on Tuesday if he had a few minutes, Sabbatini politely said he was in a rush to leave, and when asked if the next day would be better, he kept walking. After his pro-am Wednesday, he again said he didn’t have time.
“I’m done talking to you guys,” he said.
Approached a few minutes later at his locker, Sabbatini said, “I have nothing to say.”
Not even about his change in golf equipment?
“I’ll let my clubs do the talking,” he said.
There is word of a personal tragedy Sabbatini was going through, although that can’t be confirmed because he won’t talk.
Sabbatini wasn’t the least bit rude in declining to speak. He appears to be in good spirits, and he has spent a half-hour or so after his rounds to sign autographs, exchanging pleasantries with the gallery.
How long Sabbatini will be on mute remains to be seen, and it probably won’t matter unless he plays well. Considering how his last year went, not speaking might not be the worst idea.
Sabbatini feels as though he was taken out of context, and there’s some truth to that.
His basic message is that he wants to go head-to-head with Woods at every turn, which usually means he would be in contention. Woods is the best, and that’s where Sabbatini wants to be. Every player should have such aspirations.
What caused pens to run out of ink were his comments after losing to Woods at Wachovia.
“No, the funny thing is after watching him play on Sunday, I think he’s more beatable than ever,” Sabbatini said. “I think there was a few fortuitous occasions out there that really changed the round for him. And realizing that gives me even more confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again.”
Woods was the first to concede he wasn’t always hitting it where he was aiming at Quail Hollow. What made him respond was when Sabbatini said Woods was “scary” in full control of his game, and he liked the “new Tiger” better. Woods is sensitive toward criticism of his new swing, especially after it had brought him four of the last nine majors at that point.
Sabbatini never backed down because that’s not his nature.
He signed up for the first tee time Wednesday at Oakmont before the U.S. Open, with Woods’ name already on the list. Sabbatini played alone that day, and when someone jokingly asked Sabbatini if Woods was ducking him, he chirped, “I don’t know. I’ll go find out.”
He walked across the putting green and began chatting to Woods, who rarely looked up, but smiled when he finally did. Sabbatini laughed, came back to a group of reporters and shared his information.
“He said he stopped playing on Wednesday at the majors a couple of years ago, and it’s worked out OK for him,” Sabbatini said.
Over the next few months, Sabbatini said he wanted to play Woods in the Presidents Cup because he would either win and give his team a lift or lose and be a sacrificial lamb. They were in the final group at Firestone, and Woods beat him by nine and the field by eight.
By then, they were linked as adversaries, and pulling out of the Target made the headlines even larger.
“Obviously, Rory is full of confidence,” Woods said at Firestone. “He believes in what he can do, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
But right now, you won’t hear it from Sabbatini.