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Sabbatini back in the headlines

DULUTH - We all asked the same question back in 1999 - who?

A young South African was the story of the BellSouth Classic that year after opening with back-to-back 65s. It only added to the then PGA Tour rookie's story that his second-round score came on his 23rd birthday.

Back then everyone was scrambling to find out just who Rory Sabbatini was, and how he got the BellSouth lead. At the time he was the youngest player on the Tour, a fresh-faced rookie who earned his card in Q-School straight out of college at Arizona.

Seven years later, folks everywhere know about Rory Sabbatini, for a variety of

reasons.

Now he's an established, Nike-sponsored Tour player, who hasn't lost his status with steady, if not always spectacular, play. He's won more than $10 million in his short pro career, a big change from his tie for third at the 1999 BellSouth, when his $145,000 payday seemed like a huge deal.

His game has reached new heights this year with two top-10 finishes to start the year as well as a victory at the Nissan Open. His more than $2.2 million in earnings this season leads the Tour, and his $918,000 win at the Nissan Open was nearly as much as he earned in 26 starts last year.

"It's great (to lead the money list)," said Sabbatini, who turns 30 on Sunday. "But I haven't had a lot of success in the past and it will definitely be a challenge and a struggle to keep at the top."

While his strong play - he ranks third in scoring average and fourth in putting average this year - have kept him in the headlines, so have more controversial issues. Golf fans probably know him as much now for his run-ins over slow play as they do for his vast talent striking a little white ball.

One of the speedier players on Tour, Sabbatini first drew attention over slow play last summer at the Booz Allen Classic. He was paired with one of the slowest, Ben Crane, and the mixture proved as bad as predicted. Actually worse.

Sabbatini putted out on the 17th hole while Crane was still in the fairway, then went to the 18th tee and waited while Crane finished up No. 17.

Then at The Players Championship last week, Sabbatini had issues with the deliberate Nick Faldo in the first round, when the threesome was put on the clock for slow play. Sabbatini's wife, Amy, wore a "Keep Up" T-shirt, obviously aimed at Faldo, for the second round.

So as he makes another BellSouth appearance this week, most of us know Rory Sabbatini. For better and for worse.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.