S. African-born Sab­ba­tini now car­ries Slo­vak flag

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY DOUG FER­GU­SON As­so­ci­ated Press

Rory Sab­ba­tini has been play­ing the Sony Open the last 20 years, and this one was dif­fer­ent be­fore he hit a shot.

Start with the flag stitched onto his golf bag.

And when he stepped to the first tee Thurs­day, he heard words never ut­tered on the PGA Tour.

“From Bratislava, Slo­vakia, Rory Sab­ba­tini.”

Golf fans know him as the 42-year-old South African with plenty of spunk and enough game to have won six times on the PGA Tour, who played in the Pres­i­dents Cup and once reached as high as No. 8 in the world.

That changed dur­ing a cer­e­mony in New York last month, when Sab­ba­tini be­came a nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen of Slo­vakia, home of his wife, Martina.

He now plays un­der the Slo­vak flag.

“Just to sup­port her and to sup­port our son,” Sab­ba­tini said. “Get­ting Slo­vak cit­i­zen­ship is im­por­tant to them, just as im­por­tant as her get­ting her U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. So I’m sup­port­ing her, and the added ben­e­fit was her cousin is the direc­tor of golf de­vel­op­ment in Slo­vakia, and we thought this was an op­por­tu­nity.”

One ben­e­fit is the Olympics, though Sab­ba­tini said that wasn’t his pri­mary mo­tive.

After a cer­e­mony at the Con­sulate Gen­eral of the Slo­vak Repub­lic in New York, Sab­ba­tini said he hoped play­ing for Slo­vakia would be a source of in­spi­ra­tion for young play­ers in a coun­try that has only eight other play­ers listed in the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing, three of them am­a­teurs.

The next Slo­vak be­hind Sab­ba­tini is Petr Valasek at No. 1,930.

The Olympics take no more than two play­ers from each coun­try – a max­i­mum of four if they are among the top 15 in the world rank­ing – un­til it reaches the 60 play­ers. So while Sab­ba­tini is No. 201 in the world, his Olympic rank­ing this week is at No. 49.

“Ob­vi­ously, if things hap­pen to fall the way they pos­si­bly could, that would be fantastic,” Sab­ba­tini said. “But I think golf be­ing back in the Olympics is def­i­nitely a great ad­van­tage for golf all over the world. I just truly hope that we can re­ally get the pro­gram to de­velop in Slo­vakia, and if the Olympics would hap­pen to boost it, that would be fantastic.”

His wife’s cousin is Rastislav An­tal, the vice pres­i­dent of the Slo­vak Golf As­so­ci­a­tion. He said last month at the New York cer­e­mony that his hope was for Sab­ba­tini to raise in­ter­est in the coun­try so that chil­dren would get hooked on golf.

There are more golf cour­ses in Palm Beach County, where Sab­ba­tini lives, than Slo­vakia. Among the best is Pe­nati Golf Re­sort, a Jack Nick­laus de­sign where the Eu­ro­pean Chal­lenge Tour last staged an event in 2016. The win­ner was Espen Kos­f­s­tad of Nor­way, and his vic­tory qual­i­fied him for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

An Olympic golfer play­ing un­der the Slo­vak flag seemed un­likely un­til Sab­ba­tini be­came a cit­i­zen.

“Her cousin came up with the idea,” Sab­ba­tini said. “This is an op­por­tu­nity to bring more kids into the game of golf, be­cause they re­ally haven’t had an ex­po­sure on an in­ter­na­tional stage to re­ally have some­one to fol­low. They have a lot of hockey play­ers, skiers, tennis play­ers, all sports. But no­body in golf.”

Sab­ba­tini, who won the World Cup with Trevor Im­mel­man for South Africa in 2003, last won on the PGA Tour in 2011 at the Honda Clas­sic. That’s where he met his wife a few years later.

“It was my first event, and I wanted to see the pro­fes­sional level, how they were, what’s their rou­tines,” she said. “This is why I came there.”

Sab­ba­tini says he has been three or four times to Slo­vakia, a cen­tral Eu­ro­pean coun­try that shares bor­ders with Aus­tria, the Czech Repub­lic, Poland, Ukraine and Hun­gary. Bratislava is near the Aus­trian bor­der, an hour from Vi­enna. They have a place they rent when there.

Where this leads? Sab­ba­tini doesn’t know.

“My wife and I have talked about maybe play­ing a few more events in Europe, but for 21 years I played pre­dom­i­nantly on the U.S. tour,” he said. “I haven’t made any clearcut de­ci­sion ex­actly what di­rec­tion we’re go­ing. We’re still try­ing to get ev­ery­thing or­ga­nized and go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

MATT YORK AP

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