Last year he won an Olympic medal. Now he thinks he can’t compete
Rory Sabbatini is 45 years old, which makes him old to be a professional athlete. What’s less clear is whether that makes him old to be a professional golfer. In this game, age seems to be a matter of perspective.
Professional golf is getting younger. The top 10 players in the world are younger than they’ve ever been. Golfers are more polished as juniors and they’re more polished as college players and they’re more ready when they turn pro.
But pro golf feels like it’s older, too. We’re in the era of Stewart Cink winning multiple times in his late 40s. Of Brian Gay winning at 48. Of Bernhard Langer conquering the fairways at age 64. Of Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at age 50. And yes, of Tiger Woods, 43 years young, adding a crowning Masters victory. Woods and Mickelson reportedly finished 1-2 in this season’s Player Impact Program, too, reminding us where golf fans’ attention remains.
Mickelson is 51 now but still has enough juice that what tournaments he’ll play this season are a matter of significant geopolitical intrigue. Woods is 46 and coming off devastating injuries — but he’s plotting his PGA Tour comeback and is, as Rory McIlroy put it last weekend, “the epicenter of the professional world.”
Back to Sabbatini, then. He’s a six-time PGA Tour winner whose world ranking peaked at No. 8. He’s been a mainstay on Tour for more than two decades. And he’s been resurgent in recent seasons, climbing back inside the top 100 in the world as recently as this fall. And yet he says he’s too old to compete, even as he demonstrates evidence to the contrary.
How does Sabbatini think about his age? That’s what he was asked on Thursday after an opening 65 left him just one shot off the lead at the Honda Classic. Technically Sabbatini wasn’t asked about his age; he was asked the biggest change since 2011, when he won this event. (He hasn’t won on Tour since.)
“Well, I’m a lot older, for one,” Sabbatini said. “Secondly, I’m getting to that point in my game where I think I’ve gotten past where I feel like I’m, I hate to say it, truly competitive out here. There’s too many guys out here that have much more firepower, so I’ve just got to kind of pick and choose my way around the golf course, so to me it’s become more of a chess game and less about throwing some darts out there. I think I’ve just learned to maximize what my abilities are and stay away from my inabilities.”
It’s an interesting answer because Sabbatini hasn’t faded into that good night; he’s reinvented himself. He looks different, trading in bright reds and cowboy hats for floral shirts and fedoras. He has added to his South African citizenship with a South Florida residence and Slovakian citizenship, too. And he has continued to occasionally contend against some of the best golfers in the world.
Sabbatini posted six top-10s on Tour in 2019. Last fall he finished T3 at the Shriners, one of three top-10s in 2021. And then, of course, there was Sabbatini’s Olympics, where he fired a final-round 61 to earn the silver medal.
“To me that was like putting the sprinkles on top of the ice cream. It was that little added bonus at the end,” Sabbatini said on Thursday. “Yeah, when I’m out here I’ll keep running the course as long as I can, but it’s getting to that time where it’s getting close to me being bucked off, and got to go find something else to do.
Perhaps his reluctance stems from recent results; his last six starts have yielded MC-DQ-MC-MC-T70-T33. And he was hardly impressed with his opening round. “The way I played today, I got very lucky,” he said, adding, “But this golf course isn’t going to let you get away with three more rounds like that.”
There’s a case to be made that Sabbatini is selling himself short. He maintains a tidy short game, has flashes of form with his irons and, well, he’s just a half-year removed from that silver medal.
But it’s also possible Sabbatini has it all figured out. Expectations: Who needs ’em? Most Tour pros are happy with victories, content with contention and displeased with just about everything else. When good results feel like sprinkles on ice cream, the PGA Tour sounds like a more enjoyable place to spend time. Even if you’re feeling your own professional mortality.
“It’s been quite a rapid transition over the last two years,” Sabbatini mused. “When you play with two guys in your group and their combined age is less than yours, you’re thinking, wow, this is not my sport anymore.”
But it is Sabbatini’s sport. The game is getting younger and it’s getting older. And the man in the fedora has plenty more low rounds up his efflorescent sleeves. If he’s surprised when they show up, maybe that’s for the best.