Sabbatini in the early mix in RSM Classic

While he is technically not a South African any more, Rory Sabbatini was still the best-placed South African after the opening round of the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic being played at Sea Island Resort, St Simons Island, Georgia.

The man who now plays under the Slovakian flag, which is a long way from his Durban origins, carded a bogey-free five-under-par 65 to trail England’s Matt Wallace and Colombia’s Camilla Villegas by one.

Branden Grace was the next-best South African in the field, his level-par 70 leaving him down in a share of 64th. Charl Schwartzel signed for a one-over 71, together with Louis Oosthuizen, while Dylan Frittelli, possibly suffering a post-Masters letdown, came home in four-over 74 down in a share of 132nd in the 156-man field.

If Sabbatini, now in his 23rd season on the PGA Tour, is professional golf’s transcontinental man of mystery, his slow resurgence over the past four years, highlighted by a 36th-place finish in the FedEx Cup rankings in 2019, owes itself not to any global knowledge, but to a simple absence of pain. He played for years with an injured neck, and in 2016 he finally decided to get it fixed. The best option was an artificial disc replacement, and the results were immediate.

“I finally got to a point that I had no option,” he said. “I had to have surgery… it’s been probably the biggest life changer of anything I’ve ever done. It really went from one extreme to the complete opposite, agony to just joy just in minutes.”

The relief isn’t just physical, either – the psychological aspect of chronic pain is a punishment of its own.

“The stress factor of not knowing when you’re going to wake up and be able to compete because you didn’t know if your neck would be tweaked or something like that,” he said. “The stress level was probably the worst part about it.”

Now he’s free from that suffering, other than the standard aches and pains of a 44-year-old body. He hasn’t claimed a title on the PGA Tour since 2011, but the six-time winner who has earned more than $34.5-million in his career is beginning to dream again.

“I’m finally learning how to maximize the stronger points of my game,” he said. “I took too many years to figure that out. That and then spent many years working on improving my putting, and I feel like I’ve become a much more consistent putter and that alleviates a lot of pressure in the game right there.”

With reporting by Shane Ryan, Golf Digest

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