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KAWAGOE, Japan – The Slovakian national anthem is a haunting refrain of suffering and resilience that roughly translates to “Lightning over the Tatras” and dates to 1844. Rory Sabbatini had no chance.
As Olympic stories go, this one is complicated. The purity of sport and the pull of playing for one’s country can often get lost in the details, and as the 45-year-old nervously tugged at the silver medal hanging from his chest, it was the details that were impossible to ignore.
How did the South African-turned-Slovakian via South Florida get here?
“It was my idea, actually,” Rastislav Antala explained with a full-throated laugh.
Antala’s official title is president of the Slovak Golf Association, but in this context, architect seems more apropos. It was Antala who approached his cousin, the former Martina Stofanikova, with an idea that would put golf in Slovakia on the map.
“It all happened randomly,” recalled Martina, who married Sabbatini in 2014. “Rastislav brought up this idea that was very non-formal. He was like, ‘Hey, by the way. You know you can get Slovak citizenship because of you wife.’ It was almost like a joke, like, ‘Let’s try it.’ He was like, ‘Why not.’”
Antala actually made his first pitch in 2015, not long after Sabbatini and Martina wed, but at that time golf’s return to the Olympics, still a year away, was a great unknown. It wasn’t until after the success of the Rio Games that golf’s place was solidified, at least in the hearts and minds of the top players.
But it would take another two years before Antala would press the subject again during a trip to South Florida to visit the Sabbatini’s during the Honda Classic.
“What would you think if you were able to play in the Olympics for Slovakia?” Antala asked during a dinner in March 2018.
Representing the central European country, which has just 8,000 golfers and 30 courses, in the Olympics was the entrée that drew Sabbatini to the idea, but Antala’s concept actually evolved from the Games out.
The entire idea behind bringing golf back to the Olympics was to spark growth in what are considered developing golf nations, like Slovakia, through increased interest and, more importantly, funding from national Olympic committees that would trickle down to grass-roots efforts.
“For golf in Slovakia just to be here is amazing. That we have a golfer in the Olympics is something that people in Slovakia don’t even understand,” Antala said. “We are going to get a huge amount of interest like we’ve never had before.”
Sabbatini: Pressure not like winning on Tour
Until Antala’s final pitch, Sabbatini had never been to Slovakia, and he certainly had no idea how the citizenship process worked. But, as Antala explained, “It wasn’t that difficult, I have to say.”
In June 2018, Antala reached out to Sabbatini with an ultimatum.
“It happened so quick. [Antala] texted us, and it was morning in Florida, and he was like, ‘Today is the deadline. If you want to play for Slovakia you have until today to fill out all the papers,’” Martina Sabbatini recalled. “We had about an hour to finish all the paperwork.”
The six-time PGA Tour winner, who already held dual citizenship in South Africa and the U.S., plus a passport from the United Kingdom, had officially embarked on an Olympic chess match. In December 2018, with the Tokyo Games less than two years away, he announced his decision. At the time, he was the 11th-highest ranked South African in the world and well outside of landing a spot in the Olympics. But because of the qualifying criteria, he was a virtual lock to play for Slovakia.
Even when the Games were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he remained safely in the 60-player field, though the decision became something of a punchline in certain circles. Sabbatini’s next trip to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, would be his first, Tour types would joke.
But as the Games became a reality, so did Sabbatini’s status as an Olympic athlete, and when he opened his week in Japan with rounds of 69-67 the curiosity became a contender.
Late Saturday night, Sabbatini sat with Antala and Martina in a local restaurant. Sabbatini was dressed from head to toe in Team Slovakia gear – red, white and blue athletic wear emblazoned with the country’s shield that he wore with a particular pride.
A poor putting round on Day 3 had cost him, and he was going to start the final round well outside of the medal conversation. But he played his first six holes in 5 under par and turned in 31 strokes. When he added four more birdies through his first five holes after the turn, a top-3 finish didn’t seem so outrageous. When he birdied two of his last three holes of the day for an Olympic-record 61, he was alone in second place.
That was about the same time Xander Schauffele glanced up at the leaderboard and was stunned –Sabbatini was tied for the lead at 17 under.
“I looked at the board and I saw Rory shot 61, so that was a nice wake-up call for me,” Schauffele, the eventual gold medalist, admitted.
Late Saturday in Slovakia, crowds gathered in public places to watch Sabbatini’s closing round. To that point, the country had won just two medals at the Tokyo Games (in women's trap shooting and men's K-1 slalom canoeing), and if Sabbatini doesn’t exactly fit the bill of a favorite son, he is trying. After taking up citizenship, he’s traveled to Slovakia every year to hold clinics and create a foundation to financially assist Slovakian golfers. Where some will see an opportunist, others will see a patron. At the Olympics, perspective comes with many layers.
“South Africa has so many golfers to represent them, but Slovakia doesn't have anybody to represent them,” Sabbatini said. “We looked at it as a way to use it as a springboard to try and create more interest in the game of golf in Slovakia and to create more interest among the junior golfers.
“I'm just thankful to be here. But it's been such a prideful moment to be up there to represent Slovakia and to see the flag raised. Words really cannot express it.”
As “Lightning over the Tatras” drifted through Kasumigaseki Country Club’s towering pines, Sabbatini didn’t attempt to follow along. That wasn’t happening, but he did pause to savor the moment and appreciate a journey that was as complicated as it was contrived.
Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini may not sit well in some circles, but the silver medal shines nonetheless.