Yes, we are less than a month into the 2020 European Ryder Cup qualifying process but Captain Padraig Harrington may be staring at what could only be described as a bizarre and historic first in the long history of the biennial event.
It was this journalist who asked Harrington ahead of the recent BMW PGA Championship if South African-born but now Slovakian national, Rory Sabbatini was on his list of potential Wisconsin ‘probables’.
Harrington confirmed with just one word – ‘Yes’.
Now in his first qualifying event for the 2020 Ryder Cup, Sabbatini has put himself straight under the European Team qualifying process spotlight in producing a round of 65 – while using a yellow coloured golf ball – to muscle his way to second place on the opening day of the 76th Italian Open.
Sabbatini was born in Durban, South Africa but earlier this year changed his citizenship to Slovakian, the same nationality as his wife and stepson. Sabbatini’s wife’s cousin is the vice president of the Slovak Golf Association. Initially, there was speculation that the move was made in order for Sabbatini to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, but he said it was to help grow the game in that country.
The Olympics use the OWGR for qualification and the then 201st-ranked Sabbatini would not have qualified for South Africa. Sabbatini also has a UK passport and US citizenship.
He’s won six times on the PGA Tour between 2000 and 2011 and was runner-up in the 2007 Masters. He spent 21 weeks in the world’s top-10 in late-2007 and early-2008, with a high of 8th.
Sabbatini has represented South Africa on five occasions in the World Cup of Golf and won the event with Trevor Immelman as his partner in 2003.
Two years ago, Sabbatini had slumped to 581st on the World Rankings having missed six PGA Tour cuts in succession up to and including the 2017 Travelers Championship but he’s turned that around superbly to be currently ranked World No. 78.
However, it’s not been all plain sailing for Sabbatini as there’s been the odd chapter of controversy.
In the final round of the 2005 Booz Allen Classic, he was apparently frustrated by the slow pace of play of his partner, Ben Crane, so much so that Sabbatini finished the 17th hole and walked over to the next tee, leaving Crane behind to complete the hole by himself. He received heavy criticism, and some sympathy, and later apologised for the incident.
Sabbatini also made waves following the 2007 Wachovia Championship when, after leading the field by one stroke after day three and then giving up five strokes to Tiger Woods to lose the tournament on Sunday, he proclaimed that Woods was “more beatable than ever.”
In the final round of the 2007 WGC – Bridgestone Invitational, he had a fan removed who heckled him with questions about Woods. Then, in December of the same year, more controversy was stirred when he withdrew from the Target World Challenge being hosted by Woods, becoming the only player in history to withdraw from that event.
In 2011, Sabbatini created more controversy when at the Northern Trust, after hitting his ball in the rough, a volunteer helped to locate the ball, but Sabbatini, thinking that the volunteer had moved his ball, yelled at him. He later apologised to avoid being penalised. Earlier that same year, Sabbatini got into a heated, profanity-laced argument with Zurich Classic of New Orleans playing partner Sean O’Hair for undisclosed reasons. His penalty was also undisclosed because of the PGA Tour’s policy.
This journalist was reporting on the 2006 Players Championship when Sabbatini was drawn with Nick Faldo for the first two rounds, but again, Sabbatini was furious at the pace of play so much so his then wife, Amy wore a homemade black T-shirt on day two of the TPC Sawgrass event emblazoned with the words, ‘Keep Up’.
The media was uncertain whether to approach Faldo for a comment but then the six-time Major winner’s reaction was pure Faldo, when responding: “I think it’s very embarrassing for them to bring their sexual problems to the golf course. Poor fellow. I thought he had enough problems as it is without her announcing them to the world!”
Now, with Harrington clearly taking a liking to his credentials, Sabbatini could not only become the first Slovakian to represent Europe in a Ryder Cup but also the first former South African national to pull on the European Team colours.
“Obviously it’s nice to be here playing in Italy. I’ve got some roots here in Italy. It’s good to be here, and it’s always a nice change of venue, and see some new courses,” said Sabbatini after day one in Rome.
“I think just got to continue to try and do what I did today. Keep the ball in play. This is a golf course that I think accuracy is of prime importance out here. You know, putting it in play, and then continue to hit greens and I think if you get it on the greens in regulation, minimize the stress, and we’ll see what happens.”