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Sabbatini isn't sore from media backlash

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Less than two minutes earlier, Rory Sabbatini had ruined a decent third day at the Target World Challenge with a nightmarish quadruple bogey on the 18th hole.

This was probably not the smartest time to ask him for an interview. Nevertheless, nothing ventured …

"What do you want?" snarled the world's No. 11-ranked golfer as he walked toward me, before instantly breaking into a grin to show he was jesting. "Come on, fire away."

If there was ever a time when Sabbatini's supposedly spiky nature was going to rear its head then surely it was Saturday afternoon following a round of 4-over-par 76 that left him at the back of the field, a remarkable 28 shots behind tournament host Tiger Woods.

However, as we stood beside the scorer's tent at Sherwood Country Club, there was no sign of the bad attitude one might have expected given how he has often been portrayed.

Currently in the middle of swing alterations and suffering the adverse effects of a punishing travel schedule, which has included events in South Africa and Australia, Sabbatini has been far from his best this week.

Yet his sense of confidence remains unshaken, and when he steps to the tee at the first PGA Tour event of 2008 in Hawaii, the happy memories of the 2007 season, not any bitter ones from Thousand Oaks, will occupy his thoughts.

"I have obviously played pretty poorly this week but I am feeling good looking ahead to the new season," Sabbatini said. "I am pleased with my consistency this year but I don't want to rest on that. I want to try to achieve more still in 2008."

That will be no easy task. This was a huge breakout year for him, with 10 top-10 finishes, a victory at the Colonial, second-place finishes at the Masters and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and a fourth overall standing in the FedEx Cup.

It was also the year Sabbatini's name became more widely known, thanks to his much-hyped comments about Woods following the Wachovia Championship in May.

When Sabbatini emphasized his belief that Woods had been "as beatable as ever" after Tiger's victory at the Wachovia, he spoke from the heart and gave a frank assessment of the world No. 1's ordinary third-day play. Sabbatini finished third in the tournament, four shots behind Woods.

Yet the comments were discussed breathlessly in the media room and blown up into a sizeable controversy.

Sabbatini could have phrased his words better, but given that he didn't spit in Woods' direction or stamp on his toes, the reaction was far more frenzied than he deserved.

Depending upon which member of the golfing media you read, or which barking head on a certain television sports channel you heard, Sabbatini was either disrespectful, an attention-seeker or a fool. Or all three.

"It doesn't bother me," said Sabbatini, nor should it. He is smart enough to see the hypocrisy in criticizing today's players for lacking competitive fire yet lambasting anyone who doesn't fawn over Woods.

"I know what I said and I am comfortable with it," Sabbatini said. "I was commenting on how Tiger played that day and they turned it into a summary of what I was saying about his career. I guess they have fun doing things like this."

Sabbatini does not take himself too seriously but treats his golf game as if it were life or death. Who knows if that is an ideal approach but his 2007 winnings of $4,550,040 (ranked No. 6 on the PGA) says that it works.

His biographical entry in the PGA Tour handbook lists "becoming a Texan" among his interests, yet the South African, now a resident in Southlake, Texas, insists that remark was made with tongue firmly in cheek.

"My wife and I put things on there to see how many people read the bios," he grinned. "So now you've said that we know of at least two people who have seen it."

But when chatter reverts back to golfing matters, the frivolity ends. For all his sense of satisfaction at the way 2007 panned out, Sabbatini cannot shake the feeling that he could have achieved more, particularly in the majors.

Masters aside, missing the cut at the British Open and the PGA, and finishing tied for 51st at the U.S Open, was incongruous with the form he produced on either side of those events.

Sabbatini's recognition factor has increased significantly, but he knows it will take big performances in the key tournaments before he will rank alongside the senior members of the pack trying to stay in Woods' slipstream.

"Obviously the Masters set a good tone for the year in regard to the majors and then I fell short for the remainder of the year," Sabbatini said. "That was very disappointing so I have definitely got some work to do there.

"It seems there is something that just seems to be in the way in the majors. I can't quite put my finger on it yet and that is something I am trying to figure out. I want to get it out of the way and go on to have a successful career in majors."

More than an hour later, Woods made his way past the same tent after a third-round 67 to hold a six-shot lead over Jim Furyk. On this occasion, he and Sabbatini are miles apart and there is no combination of miraculous events that could conspire to even halve that gap by tournament's end.

But the bigger picture, of narrowing the overall gulf to Woods, is one Sabbatini is committed to. If he makes strides over the next 12 months as great as those he did this year, he will be much closer to his target.

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