MEDINAH, Ill. – The portly and readily jovial man shadowing Rory Sabbatini this week at Medinah Country Club wore a white golf shirt emblazoned with the words “Slovakia Olympic Golf.” He was checking in on his country’s best player, the South African-born Sabbatini, who in December became a citizen of the central European nation.
Sabbatini’s wife, Martina Stofanikova, is a native of Bratislava, Slovakia. Her cousin is the aforementioned Slovakian Olympic official, Rastislav Antala, who goes by Rasto. His official title is vice president of the Slovak Golf Association, so he is in charge of the national teams. He carries a single digit handicap and a lot of gusto.
He has to. The Federation has been in existence only since 1991. The country has 21 golf courses, 7,644 golfers and one professional ranked 78th in the world. That would be Sabbatini, who enters the third round of the BMW Championship at nine-under 135, tied for fifth place.
Right now, he is the national team. There are no other Slovakian players ranked in the top 1,000 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Not one Slovakian woman is listed in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
No wonder Rasto is watching Sabbatini so closely. He has been in the U.S. for two weeks now, having also attended the Northern Trust last week in New Jersey. A six-time winner on the PGA Tour, Sabbatini began the week 45th in the FedEx Cup standings, but he’s projected to finish 28th if he can maintain his current place through Sunday. Through 36 holes, he is one of only two players without a bogey. The other is leader Hideki Matsuyama, who broke the course record Friday with a nine-under 63.
Rasto is rooting hard for Sabbatini to make his first Tour Championship since 2007, the first year of the tour's FedEx Cup competition. “Hopefully, I can stay another week and watch,” he said.
But there are other reasons he wants to see Sabbatini succeed, reasons beyond familial or building up Travelocity credits. He is at the forefront of trying to grow the game in Slovakia. Sabbatini can help that. And, apparently, he has been helping since he became one of its citizens. Martina said her husband is regularly in the news back home. “Maybe golf gets mentioned briefly,” she said, “but now there is a reason to cover it more almost every week and talking about what he is doing, even if he just makes a cut.”
Sabbatini hasn’t won a tournament since the 2011 Honda Classic, but he is enjoying a resurgence in 2019, posting six top-10 finishes, including a pair of thirds, and earning more than $2.2 million. His world ranking places him 32nd in the Olympic Golf Rankings, safely inside the top 60 that will compete in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“There is a lot of excitement about him competing in Tokyo,” Rasto said. “This is a good thing for the game in Slovakia. When he does well, then we'll do better and the game does better as far as interest.
“If he makes it to Atlanta, that will be big,” Rasto added with a huge grin. “Big news back home. I’d like to see it, but I would rather go to Atlanta.”
Originally Appeared on Golf Digest