Late on Saturday night in Slovakia, crowds gathered in public places to watch Rory Sabbatini’s closing round in the Tokyo Olympics. Up until that point, they only had a shooting Gold Medal and a canoeing silver to cheer, but now they had Sabbatini, the oldest player in the field, screeching his way up the leaderboard.
The reason he was playing for Slovakia was through his wife, Martina, and she was literally right by his side as his regular caddie had quit on him to go and work for Jason Dufner a month previously.
To make matters even more interesting, CT Pan of Chinese Taipei had his wife, Michelle, on the bag as a one-off and he was in the middle of tying the course record of 63 and also threatening a medal. The two of them had teed off seven groups back of the leading three-ball on Sunday.
“I went into the final round thinking I had played myself out of a medal, so I didn’t even go there with any of the team uniform for the medal ceremony,” explains Sabbatini.
“I had a really bad warm-up – I hit about 20 balls before I finally handed the driver to my wife and said ‘I don’t have it here so maybe we can find something on the course’. I was trying to hit a draw and it would start right and go right, and then it would go straight left. Some of my best rounds have come after an awful warm-up. Golf is a silly game.”
Sabbatini’s start was as hot as the Tokyo weather. The 45-year-old birdied the first two holes, added another at the 5th and then holed his approach for an eagle at the next. Even a bogey at the 9th barely registered as he then rattled off four birdies in the next five holes.
“The first time I started thinking about it was after the 13th – the leaders weren’t moving that much and I had gained quite a bit of ground. If I could have a strong finish, I thought something might be possible. At that point I was looking at getting a spot on the podium, but I also had to remind myself to stop thinking about that and re-focus on the next shot,” he says.
There would be another bogey at 16, but Sabbatini ended his day as he had started it with a brace of birdies, the second of which was celebrated with a very satisfying fist-pump.
He was round in 61, a record score that will take some beating given the next two Olympics will be held at Le Golf National and Riviera Country Club. The golfer who will always be found at the top end of any listing for short tempers had kept his cool when it mattered the most.
Playing with freedom
“I definitely didn’t foresee it coming; ironically, it’s probably the first time I’ve gone out and really just put no pressure on myself. I went into it very light-heartedly, even after the warm-up. The first three rounds I had put so much effort into trying to give myself a chance of ending up on the podium, what with representing Slovakia and the importance of trying to achieve something, and then on the Sunday I just played golf. I took it to a place I’ve never really gone as a pro, it was just 23 years too late in doing that!” he says.
“It definitely helped playing with CT and him playing so well. It was a fun experience. Neither of us have our wives caddying for us normally, so it was different and we had a lot of fun. Martina understands what I’m going through on the course, she keeps me a little bit more relaxed and she tries to help me make fun of myself when I make mistakes, even though I’m the worst player for doing that.
“Every time you try and make yourself more relaxed, you make yourself more stressed. That’s probably been my biggest downfall and I’ve always been extremely hard on myself and I give myself no leeway for any mistakes. That Sunday was a great lesson to learn, I made some mistakes and I just bounced back. It was quite emotional.”
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