- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Capital Open went out with a whimper and a Rory.

After five days and four inches of rain, South African Rory Sabbatini finally put an end to the odyssey at TPC at Avenel, claiming the Capital crystal by four strokes yesterday.

“It’s been a long time since I had this feeling,” said the 27-year-old Sabbatini, who was heralded as one of the game’s young guns after his breakout victory at the 2000 Air Canada Championship only to misplace his map to the winner’s circle in the nearly three seasons since. “It’s great to finally get that second win … It’s nice to put a few of the rumors to bed that my Sunday scoring isn’t that great.”

Sabbatini, who had posted a gruesome final-round scoring average of 73.6 strokes in his last five events, was nearly six strokes better than that on the 7,005-yard, par-71 layout yesterday, cruising home with a solid 68 despite a pair of closing bogeys.

Sabbatini, the only player in the field to card four rounds in the 60s at Avenel, finished the event at 14-under 270, four strokes clear of the trio of Duffy Waldorf, Fred Funk and Joe Durant.

Of the three, only Waldorf had a legitimate chance of catching the South African. In fact, when Sabbatini and Waldorf walked off the 13th green, the event appeared headed for a dramatic duel. What transpired seconds earlier was as good as this event, or any other, ever gets. With Waldorf at 10 under and assessing a 15-foot eagle putt, Sabbatini (at 12 under) delivered a 60-foot lightning bolt, chipping in for an eagle of his own from a nasty lie just short and right of the green.

“It’s not often that you can hit shots like that, that obviously come off like you want and then also react like you want,” said Sabbatini of his chip-in. “That was definitely a big confidence booster there and that settled me down quite a bit.”

Undeterred by Sabbatini’s heroics, Waldorf then topped him, and the game seemed afoot. After pars at the 14th, the pair once again swapped scintillating shots at the 15th, each carving mid-iron approaches to within six feet and then consummating the birdies. But just when the Capital Open looked poised for a unforgettable finish, suspense got a case of the shanks.

Apparently, an overzealous TV viewer placed a call to the USGA, which in turn called the tournament headquarters, concerning a seemingly innocent bit of landscaping Waldorf did in the 12th fairway. While preparing to hit his approach at the 12th, Waldorf tapped down the pitch mark from his drive, which was approximately three feet in front of and to the right of his ball. Though the mark was clearly to the right of Waldorf’s line, Tour officials later claimed he violated rule 13.2, which forbids a player from altering the ground within a reasonable distance of his line of play and results in a two-shot penalty.

“It wasn’t even close to his line,” said ABC analyst and Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee. “Every player out here has had rules violations of some form or another called on them at some point. And I can tell you from experience that it completely throws you off.”

PGA Tour tournament director Mark Russell informed Waldorf, as he happily made his way off the 16th teebox, that he violated the rule and had better consider his birdie on the 12th a bogey. Apparently, it didn’t matter that the supposed violation seemed extraordinarily picayune given that golf purity had already taken a four-round, ball-in-hand beating.

Apparently, it didn’t matter that Waldorf’s intended line of flight was some 15 degrees left of the mark.

“If I hit directly over that mark, I would have hit it 50 yards right of the green,” said Waldorf after reviewing the tape and pleading his case before Tour officials after the round. “I was kind of shook up because I had just played some really good holes … Now, I’m on the 16th fairway and I’m thinking, ‘Well, if I have two shots and I’m four back, I’m kind of out of the tournament.’”

The distracted Waldorf made that fact official by blowing his approach over the green and carding a sloppy bogey while Sabbatini rifled another pin-rattling approach to within four feet for a doubt-dispatching birdie.

Sabbatini, a self-taught player who didn’t begin working with a swing instructor until his second year on Tour, now heads into this week’s U.S. Open at Olympia Fields outside of Chicago with a newfound wealth of confidence.

“Obviously, I think the greens are going to be tougher, and the USGA will have a little fun with us, hiding pins the way they do,” said Sabbatini when asked to compare Avenel to what he expects at the Open. “It’s a major. It’s hard to compare a regular tournament to a major. The preparation, the course setup, and generally the course designs are to a level that there is a such a premium on hitting shots that are perfect … It plays a pretty good game with your mental stamina.”

After surviving the stress of three straight nights and one 24-hour rain delay atop the leader board at Avenel, perhaps there should no longer be any doubt about the talented South African’s stamina.

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