De Vicenzo: Not so stupid after all

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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 5, 2008, edition of Golfweek.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Tucked behind a towering line of shrubs in a working-class suburb south of Buenos Aires, Ranelagh Golf Club has stood for more than four generations.

Trains regularly rattle by and traffic, as much a part of the fabric of Argentine society as soccer or al asador barbecues, chokes the narrow streets that ring the modest layout. Outside life inches forward, but here within the leafy confines, calendars seem fixed on 1968.

The interior is circa Eva Perón, with yellowed walls lined with faded photos and dog-eared newspaper clips. Anchored amid the relics – staked at his usual table next to the large window with the sweeping view of the first tee and nursing a rich, black cafecito – sits Roberto De Vicenzo, his back straight and eyes fixed on the manicured fairways. Yet even here, encircled by decades of history, the patriarch of Argentine golf has little interest in living in the past.

This Masters Sunday will mark the 40th anniversary of what many consider the most egregious gaffe in golf history, an incorrectly signed scorecard that

cost De Vicenzo a playoff with eventual champion Bob Goalby. Instead of a final-round 65 – a card that included a front-nine 31 and crucial birdie at the par-4 17th – De Vicenzo signed for a 66 after playing competitor Tommy Aaron mistakenly recorded a par 4 for the Argentine at the 17th.

Despite a resume that spans nearly five decades, 230 worldwide victories and a name that is etched into the Claret Jug, De Vicenzo had his place in golf history cemented that spring afternoon – his 45th birthday – at Augusta National. He knows that. He’s had 40 years to come to terms with his lot in life. Forty years to find perspective within all that pain.

“The best thing that ever happened to me, for my reputation, was to sign wrong,” De Vicenzo says. “I would sign wrong again after the experiences I have had. I have so many good things happen to me, I feel proud. After 40 years, I feel proud. Before 40 years, I cry.”

If sound bites are destined to define De Vicenzo, his epilogue will read, “What a stupid I am.” It was De Vicenzo’s emotionally spent reaction, although some contend his actual response was more pointed that Sunday in Georgia after his fateful faux pas.

He would make five more trips to Augusta National (1970-73 and ’75), but the wounds were still too fresh, and he gave up his competitive quest for redemption.

“Every time I play (at Augusta), people would yell, ‘Roberto, don’t forget to sign the scorecard,’ ” he says. “Why the hell I come here?”

Now, two generations removed from the ’68 Masters, De Vicenzo has become philosophical about his place in golf history and his trailblazing career that lifted him from the caddie yards of Buenos Aires to major champion. Even in a country where the sports calendar begins and ends with soccer, De Vicenzo is an Argentine icon who still draws crowds wherever he goes.

“I think people remember more my signing the scorecard wrong at the Masters than when I won the British Open,” says De Vicenzo, who clipped Jack Nicklaus by two strokes at Hoylake in 1967, nine months before the Masters. “When you pass away, when your life is finished – at first, they will cry for you. Then they will think about you. Then they will finally forget you. It’s life.”

De Vicenzo, who will turn 85 on April 14, tells friends he’s closer to the hole than the tee.

Yet neither time nor a lifetime traversing the globe has robbed De Vicenzo of his passion for the game or, at least in age-defying fits and starts, his ability to play.

Two or three times a week, De Vicenzo, who is married and has two grown sons, can be found wandering Ranelagh’s fairways on a course named in his honor. His rounds last only three or four holes, but he remains as competitive as ever.

“I still hit 250 (yards), huh?” he smiles. “You want to see it?”

Undaunted, or perhaps unhappy with his guest’s reaction to his claim, De Vicenzo collects a well-worn driver and marches to the first tee. His swing hardly resembles the smooth action that lifted him to four PGA Tour titles and national championships in 16 countries. Yet what he lacks in form and freedom of movement he makes up for with quick hands and an ageless athleticism. All three attempts sail down Ranelagh’s opening fairway, and De Vicenzo doesn’t need ShotLink to tell him what his heart knows.

“250 (yards),” he says. “Maybe more.”

As much as De Vicenzo credits his Masters miscue for the attention it produced and the strength it instilled in him, those who followed him from the Argentine caddie ranks were inspired by his class and conviction.

“His legacy, to a certain extent, has not only helped those players who have followed him, but also demanded something from them,” says Mark Lawrie, executive director of the Argentine Golf Association. “This is the blueprint. This is the way you behave, because this is the way he set the course. That was a tremendous help for all that followed.”

The line of ascension is clear. From De Vicenzo followed Vicente Fernandez, who in turn preceded Eduardo Romero and now Angel Cabrera as the national standard-bearer. They all emerged as world-class players held to a higher standard by the legacy of the game’s most endearing tragic hero.

Fernandez’s mind races back 50 years to the first time he met De Vicenzo while the younger man was caddying at the Hindu Club in Buenos Aires.

“I followed in De Vicenzo’s steps. He left the door open for me,” Fernandez says. “He was an inspiration for all the Latinos. They could see De Vicenzo playing worldwide – not only the way he played, but also because he was a gentleman.”

De Vicenzo only slightly embraces his role as trailblazer. Instead, the philosopher turns fan. A fan who watched the final round at Oakmont last year with equal amounts of pride and envy.

He marvels at Cabrera’s ability to handle the pressure of a major Sunday, and notes with a wry smile that his compatriot’s $1.26 million haul for winning the 2007 U.S. Open was 200 times more than the $6,000 he collected for winning the ’67 Open Championship.

“Money is like women. Good women, your eyes are open. Bad women, you no look. Good money, you look. Bad money, you no see it. Right?” he smiles.

Golf karma cares little for the content of a player’s character. If it did, De Vicenzo would have a green jacket to go with those 230 other keepsakes and a permanent home among the pines and azaleas. Instead, the thoughtful son of a housepainter will be watching the action from his modest home near Buenos Aires. Or maybe he’ll walk the three blocks to Ranelagh and regale friends with memories from that fateful Masters. He talks about the ’68 Masters with a detached ease. He can even laugh about it. After 40 years, De Vicenzo has forged a peace with his place in golf lore, but that doesn’t mean the inner competitor is content with how the cosmic tumblers fell into place.

“The tournament (has) no finish yet. When I die, I go to heaven and wait for Goalby. We will have that playoff,” De Vicenzo says, smiling. “But I don’t know if he go in (heaven).”

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