BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Angel Cabrera ducked around a corner and lit a cigarette. He may not smoke on the course as he did when he won the 2007 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t quite kicked the habit. On this gorgeous December evening, Cabrera finished welcoming tournament supporters at a cocktail reception before the 2013 Visa Argentine Open. He signed autographs, posed for pictures and one day later would serve as emcee of the pro-am party and congratulate its winners. Just another day in the life of the embajador of the Argentine Golf Association, whose image is plastered everywhere to promote his country’s national championship.
“He is dead beat, nursing an injury and yet he still comes back,” said Mark Lawrie, the association’s executive director. “Not for the money, mind you. The purse is small, and there are no appearance fees. He comes for the love of the game and to allow his fans to see him, which they don’t get to do quite often.”
Cabrera stamped out the cigarette and fished his cellphone, adorned with a protective case with the Masters logo, from his pocket and placed the phone to his ear. If there’s one place that has captured his affection like his native land, it is Augusta National, where Cabrera won a green jacket in 2009 and nearly grabbed another one last year, losing in a playoff to Adam Scott, a sixth career top-10 Masters finish.
Cabrera’s march to the 2013 Masters began when he won the 2012 Argentine Open in December, stringing together four good rounds for what he said was the first time in memory.
“Everything changed after winning the Argentine Open,” Cabrera said.
Indeed, to find the reasons for Cabrera’s uncanny success at Augusta, one must look to his roots, Cordoba.
“My heart is there,” Cabrera said. “One of the things that golf costs me most is being far from my home and my people. I’ve traveled all over the world, and whenever I’m away it only makes me love my country more.”
Cabrera still resides in Villa Allende, near Argentina’s second city of Cordoba, and draws inspiration from visits to his childhood home. Cabrera was raised by his paternal grandmother after his parents split and endured the kind of hardscrabble upbringing that would have made Charles Dickens blanch.
At 10, he walked three miles each way to Cordoba Golf Club, where his father, the original “El Pato” (the duck), had caddied before him.
“Angel knew that golf course as no other caddie,” said Eduardo Romero, the 2008 U.S. Senior Open champion, and longtime friend and mentor to Cabrera.
When he first turned up at the golf club, Cabrera had no shoes. His earnings helped put food on the table. Cabrera didn’t recall the exact figure per loop but told his coach, Charlie Epps, that he saved for a long time to buy a pair of shoes. The other form of compensation is etched in his mind: Cabrera munched on mortadella, an Italian bologna, and when he got home at night he’d be lucky if he got a hard roll and a cup of mate, a local herbal tea.
“He didn’t grow up dreaming of winning the Masters,” Epps said.
“He dreamed about his next meal.”
Romero’s father, Alejo, a teaching professional at Cordoba, took a shine to Cabrera. Juan Cruz Molina, a member who was Cabrera’s steady bag, furnished him with his first set of clubs, Lynx, at 16. Their encouragement and his good fortune to grow up in a hotbed of golf with talented teachers provided Cabrera with the motivation to hit thousands of balls. By 20, Cabrera had turned professional and begun his itinerant life. His manager gave him a list of common phrases to communicate in airports, hotels, restaurants and golf clubs. “Angel went everywhere showing the paper for people to read,” Romero said.
When Cabrera failed three times to get his European Tour card, Romero paid Cabrera’s expenses so he could keep trying. He succeeded in 1995.
In 2003, with two European Tour victories, he joined the PGA Tour. Four years later, he outlasted Tiger Woods to win the 2007 U.S. Open, the first Argentine to win a major in 40 years. Roberto De Vicenzo captured the 1967 Open Championship yet may
be better known for signing an incorrect scorecard at the 1968 Masters, a gaffe that cost him a playoff spot with eventual winner Bob Goalby.
To commemorate Cabrera’s victory, De Vicenzo sent his countryman a framed picture of the green jacket and a note: “I hope this gives you luck so someday you can bring back a green jacket for yourself.”
To hear Cabrera tell it, Augusta is golf’s greatest cathedral, and from the first time he stepped foot on its grounds he felt at home.
“Everything is so perfect that you don’t even want to take a divot,” he said. “You don’t want to spoil it.”
Through Romero, Cabrera forged a friendship with Seve Ballesteros. In what became an annual ritual for Cabrera, he sought to unlock Augusta’s secrets from the two-time Masters champion.
“For the first four or five years, Seve helped me a lot. He said be careful with this, be careful with that,” Cabrera said. “I remember when we arrived on the 12th tee, Seve said, ‘Always aim to the left of the bunker.’ I said, ‘But what if the pin is on the right? I’d have a 90-foot putt.’ He said, ‘It’s not bad to make a 4 on this hole. You want to eliminate making 5 or more.’ At the time, I may not have understood the importance of what he was teaching me. But whenever I got in difficult situations on the golf course, his words of wisdom come back to my mind.”
Cabrera found himself in such a sticky spot on the first hole of a three-man, sudden-death playoff at the 2009 Masters with Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry. Blocked by a tree trunk after spraying his tee shot into the pines right of 18, Cabrera pictured a gap – How big? “It was bigger than the ball,” Cabrera said – and went for broke. His shot ricocheted off a tree and took a fortuitous bounce into the fairway, from where Cabrera made an improbable par to stay alive. On the next hole, the 10th, Cabrera won the title with a routine par 4. A year later, Cabrera returned to the spot of his unlikely gambit at 18 at the request of his son, Angel Jr., who took a long look and said, “You’re crazy. There’s nothing to shoot at.” Lawrie, who accompanied the group, chuckled at the memory: “Angel kept saying, ‘It’s there. It’s there.’ ”
Forty-one years after his famous lament, “What a stupid I am,” De Vicenzo cried with delight at the sight of Cabrera slipping into a size 46 regular green jacket.
Fast-forward to 2013, when Cabrera entered winless on the PGA Tour since his Masters triumph.
“I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I had many doubts,” Cabrera said. “The first day I hit the ball well and had a good score, and it boosted my confidence.”
From an opening 71, he followed with a pair of 69s to share the 54-hole lead with Brandt Snedeker. Cabrera’s hopes for another major seemed dashed when he gambled on his approach at the 13th from the pine straw, found Rae’s Creek and made bogey. But he atoned with a birdie at 16 and stood in the 18th fairway with a share of the lead until Scott rolled in a dramatic birdie putt to push ahead. Scott appeared to have the green jacket buttoned up, but Cabrera still had something to say about that. He scoped the distance – 158 yards uphill – and conversed with Angel Jr., who caddies at the majors for his dad.
“It was cold and we were between 7- and 8-iron. We decided I couldn’t be short. If I hit it behind the hole it would come back toward the hole,” Cabrera said.
So he chose the 7-iron, his favorite, the only club he had as a boy.
“It came out a little bit slow,” Cabrera said. “I said, ‘Fly, fly.’ I wanted it to get all the way to the flag.”
The ball checked within 4 feet of the hole. He knocked knuckles with his son and after holing the putt, hugged him and walked off the green, his right arm draped over his son’s shoulder, shades of Jack Nicklaus and Jackie Jr. in 1986.
“I told Angel afterwards, ‘You had the best father-son camp-out anyone could ever have,’ ” Ping Tour rep Matt Rollins said.
It shouldn’t be forgotten how close Cabrera came in the playoff to a third major title. Afterward, Lawrie attempted to console Cabrera. “I gave it all I had,” Cabrera said. “A great guy won. I’m happy for him.”
A week later, Cabrera played at Cordoba Golf Club in the Abierto del Centro, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event. He chipped in for eagle on the 18th hole to force a playoff, and this time won. He has struggled to regain his form since injuring his left shoulder during the Open Championship, and has made only one cut in seven starts this season.
Yet he still remains a threat at Augusta, where he dreams of matching Ballesteros’ Masters total.
“One more, for sure,” Cabrera said. “One more would be nice.”