Honolulu – Rory Sabbatini has been playing the Sony Open the last 20 years, and this one was different before he hit a shot.
Start with the flag stitched onto his golf bag.
And when he stepped to the first tee on Thursday, he heard words never uttered on the PGA Tour.
“From Bratislava, Slovakia, Rory Sabbatini.”
Golf fans know him as the 42-year-old South African with plenty of spunk and enough game to have won six times on the PGA Tour, who played in the Presidents Cup and once reached as high as No 8 in the world.
That changed during a ceremony in New York last month, when Sabbatini became a naturalised citizen of Slovakia, home of his wife, Martina.
He now plays under the Slovak flag.
“Just to support her and to support our son,” Sabbatini said.
“Getting Slovak citizenship is important to them, just as important as her getting her US citizenship. So I’m supporting her, and the added benefit was her cousin is the director of golf development in Slovakia, and we thought this was an opportunity.”
One benefit is the Olympics, though Sabbatini said that wasn’t his primary motive.
After a ceremony at the Consulate General of the Slovak Republic in New York, Sabbatini said he hoped playing for Slovakia would be a source of inspiration for young players in a country that has only eight other players listed in the Official World Golf Ranking, three of them amateurs.
The next Slovak behind Sabbatini is Petr Valasek at No 1 930.
The Olympics take no more than two players from each country – a maximum of four if they are among the top 15 in the world ranking – until it reaches the 60 players. So while Sabbatini is No 201 in the world, his Olympic ranking this week is at No 49.
“Obviously, if things happen to fall the way they possibly could, that would be fantastic,” Sabbatini said.
“But I think golf being back in the Olympics is definitely a great advantage for golf all over the world. I just truly hope that we can really get the programme to develop in Slovakia, and if the Olympics would happen to boost it, that would be fantastic.”
His wife’s cousin is Rastislav Antal, the vice-president of the Slovak Golf Association. He said last month at the New York ceremony that his hope was for Sabbatini to raise interest in the country so that children would get hooked on golf.
There are more golf courses in Palm Beach Country, where Sabbatini lives, than Slovakia. Among the best is Penati Golf Resort, a Jack Nicklaus design where the European Challenge Tour last staged an event in 2016. The winner was Espen Kosfstad of Norway, and his victory qualified him for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
An Olympic golfer playing under the Slovak flag seemed unlikely until Sabbatini became a citizen.
“Her cousin came up with the idea,” Sabbatini said.
“This is an opportunity to bring more kids into the game of golf, because they really haven’t had an exposure on an international stage to really have someone to follow. They have a lot of hockey players, skiers, tennis players, all sports. But nobody in golf.”
Sabbatini, who won the World Cup with Trevor Immelman for South Africa in 2003, last won on the PGA Tour in 2011 at the Honda Classic. That’s where he met his wife a few years later.
“It was my first event, and I wanted to see the professional level, how they were, what’s their routines,” she said.
“This is why I came there.”
Sabbatini says he has been three or four times to Slovakia, a central European country that shares borders with Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. Bratislava is near the Austrian border, an hour from Vienna. They have a place they rent when there.
Where this leads? Sabbatini doesn’t know.
He played college golf in Arizona, made it to the PGA Tour on his first try and won in his second year. He has never played more than two European Tour events in one season, and his last appearance was the Czech Masters in 2016.
“My wife and I have talked about maybe playing a few more events in Europe, but for 21 years I played predominantly on the U.S. tour,” he said.
“I haven’t made any clear-cut decision exactly what direction we’re going. We’re still trying to get everything organized and going in the right direction.”
Being introduced from Slovakia was different, and then the routine took over.
“I’ve been here 21 years. I got out there every day and do the same thing,” he said.
“Try and win a golf tournament.”
Sabbatini shot an opening round of 2-under par, 68 to lie tied for 29th in the 144-man field at the Waialae CC.