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Sabbatini says he's ready to walk the talk

Sunday, April 06, 2008

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It's an unfair comparison, but Rory Sabbatini has to live with it.

One of the few players willing to at least talk a big game in relation to Tiger Woods, Sabbatini has yet to have his clubs sustain the conversation.

In the 16 events since the start of 2007 that Sabbatini and Woods have played in together, Woods has finished higher in 15 of them, including nine victories. Sabbatini has tied Woods in only one -- the Masters Tournament, where they each finished runner-up to Zach Johnson.

"I'm really looking forward to going back," Sabbatini said of the only major he's ever contended in. "I learned a lot about the golf course. Any time you can go to a major championship feeling comfortable and confident, that's a big thing."

Sabbatini had his finest professional season in 2007. He won his fourth PGA Tour event at Colonial, posted 10 top-10s, finished fourth in the inaugural FedEx Cup and sixth on the money list. All of that carried him to the No. 8 ranking in the world.

"It's just a number," Sabbatini said. "You set goals and equate your success on a golf course according to how you perform and how you finish and where you are in the world rankings. Obviously it's nice to be playing consistently enough to be in that position. Once you get there it's hard to advance even further up. There's always those little shelves in golf. You crack the top 20, crack the top 10 and the top five. It gets harder and harder and makes me realize I have to work even harder every time."

Woods, the world's No. 1 player, doesn't have any true rivals, but he has a few players who get under his skin. Sabbatini is one of them.

It started when Sabbatini made a fair statement before the final round of the Wachovia Championship, when he led Woods by one stroke. He simply stated that the world's No. 1 player was at the time more "beatable" than ever.

Woods promptly won the tournament -- yet not without a few shaky moments -- and Sabbatini was relegated by the media to Tiger's doghouse. The tale was revived when Woods again rallied from one down in the final round to whip Sabbatini by nine strokes at the World Golf Championships event at Firestone.

It escalated further when Sabbatini withdrew from Woods' off-season charity event midtournament without giving notice.

Sabbatini made a good-faith gesture to donate his $170,000 take from the event to a charity before the Buick Invitational. The two players showed no warmth for each other that week when they passed without speaking in the media center after sharing the spotlight as early leaders.

"As far as I understand there's no animosity," Sabbatini said in January. "We're both competitors, and we both want to win. That's the situation."

"I haven't talked to him about any of it," Woods said minutes later after the two didn't even make eye contact. "It is what it is."

If Sabbatini is ever going to make a competitive run at Woods, he can start by improving his performance in majors. In 25 career major starts, Sabbatini has missed 14 cuts and only once finished higher than 26th.

"Other than Augusta last year, I'd say my major performances had never been anything worthy of putting me in that category," he said of his quest to challenge Woods. "So I'd say I have some work to do to prove that I'm worthy of being put in that category."

Sabbatini employed a more conservative strategy at Augusta last year.

"I just basically decided that I needed to play smarter, especially in the circumstances being more focused on where I placed the ball, knowing when I can attack and when I need to be a little more cautious, and accept the fact that par is a good score and not trying to birdie every hole," he said. "That's always been my downfall is being too aggressive."

Sabbatini held a share of the lead on the back nine Sunday. But his bogey on 14 concurrent with Johnson's birdie on 13 cost him his breakthrough chance.

"It was a roller coaster, and I didn't know quite what was going to happen Sunday, but it was a lot of fun," he said. "You can't let your focus slip on that golf course. If you do, it can take strokes away from you very quickly."

His performance taught him a few lessons he hopes will make a difference in future majors.

"Last year really proved to me that you never know what Augusta holds for you," he said. "So you have to keep on trying and see what happens. I've always liked Augusta and had never played as well there as I'd like until last year."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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