On a Saturday night 10 years ago this week, Angel Cabrera left Augusta National with the 54-hole lead in the Masters, an empty stomach and nervous golf coach -- me -- behind the wheel of his courtesy car. As we pulled out of the club onto Washington Road, he pointed to a Kroger supermarket and told me to pull in. Growing up poor in Argentina, where he was raised by his grandmother, it was rare for him to buy more than one day’s worth of food at a time. He never grew out of that habit.
We bought noodles and chicken, then went back to our rental house, where he did the cooking. It was just Angel, his caddie and me. Earlier in the week, a group of his friends from Argentina had gathered at the house at 9:30 p.m. with meat and beverage for a traditional Asado. I knew it was going to turn in to a party, and Angel was playing so well, I didn’t want him to be distracted. At 10:15 p.m. I said, “That’s it, fellas, time to go home.” They frowned at me and looked at Angel. “Charlie’s the boss,” he said.
The next day, Angel won the 2009 Masters on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff against Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell. It was the high point of a remarkable career that I feel has stayed too far under the radar. As a player Angel accomplished a lot. He won the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont and won three times altogether on the PGA Tour. He won five tour events in Europe, another in Asia and played on four Presidents Cup teams. In 2013 he almost won the Masters again, losing to Adam Scott on the second hole of sudden death. A second Masters victory combined with his U.S. Open win would have made him a lock for the World Golf Hall of Fame, but as it is I don’t hear his name brought up a lot. I believe he deserves to be enshrined, mostly because of his playing record but also because of his personal story. We’ll never see a rags-to-riches story like Angel’s again, because in his case the rags part literally is true.
On that Saturday night in the rental house, I employed an old motivational trick that usually brought out the best in Angel. Over the noodles and chicken I asked, “Did you eat a lot of chicken when you were a kid?” As his coach and friend since Angel was 18 and still an amateur in Argentina, I knew the answer, but asked anyway.
“When I was 12, a friend and I would go into our neighborhood at night and steal chickens,” Angel said. “One man in the neighborhood had a big coop full of chickens, but he also had a shotgun and owned a dog. So one night we stole his dog, and the next night we came back and took the chickens.”
I got Angel to talk about how at age 10 he began caddying at Cordoba Country Club, walking three miles each way to get there. How his first meal of the day was the hard roll and cup of cocoa the club served the caddies when they showed up. In the press conference following the third round, a writer asked Angel if he had dreamed as a child of one day winning the Masters. “No, all I dreamed about was food,” he said.
The memories of his childhood weren’t pleasant, but making Angel talk about his early days fired him up. The look in his eyes reminded me of when I first saw him play back in 1987, when he played with an anger I couldn’t understand. It was a chip-on-the-shoulder, street kind of anger you see mainly in poor inner city kids. His temperament wasn’t particularly helpful to him, and in 1993, after Angel had turned pro and a wealthy man in Argentina asked me who I would recommend he sponsor for a crack at the European PGA Tour -- it had to be Angel or a talented young pro named Sebastian Fernandez, one or the other -- I chose Sebastian. Over dinner that Saturday in Augusta in 2009, Angel for the thousandth time reminded me of that.
Angel at his best was an incredible player. He was one of the best drivers I ever saw. He had a beautiful grip and a swing where he came over the top just a little, kind of like Sam Snead. In all the years I’ve known him -- and this is hard to believe but it’s true -- I’ve seen him hit one duck hook, off the first tee at the 2008 U.S. Open. He just never let the clubface close on him. Driving the ball well has always been a focal point of Argentine players. Roberto De Vicenzo, probably the nation’s all-time great golf hero, was an incredible driver. It’s just something they copied from one another over the years, and Angel was the best of the best.
After he won the 2007 U.S. Open, Angel for the first time began working hard on his game, practice-wise. He always had played a lot but practiced very little, because growing up poor, he couldn’t afford to practice on a real range. He played a million holes but didn’t refine his golf swing by hitting balls. He also began working on his putting. On that count I feel I really helped him. My days teaching in the Golf Digest Schools were invaluable there. I emphasized repetition -- Angel got to where he could make 100 three-footers in a row -- and worked on refining the path of his stroke. It really built his confidence. Then we traveled to the Ping company and got his equipment fine-tuned perfectly. By the 2009 Masters, Angel was feeling even more confident than he was in 2007. That made him a force to be reckoned with.
On Sunday, a remnant of that old anger and his youth spent in poverty, helped Angel. Because of that desperately poor background, everything he got through golf was a bonus to him. The realization he’d never be hungry again made it less life-and-death for him. He still smoldered when things went wrong, but in a defiant way that took choking off the table. He just didn’t get scared. He also was 39 and knew he’d paid a huge price to get where he was. I did some math around that time and figured Angel, between caddying and playing, had walked more than 45,000 miles in his lifetime. Experience told him Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell and everyone else was feeling at least as much pressure he was.
A few bogeys dropped Angel out of the lead, and by the 16th hole he was two behind Perry and one behind Campbell. After Kenny hit his tee shot stiff, Angel followed with a shot to about 12 feet. His putt was a left-to-right breaker, just the type of putt he’d lacked confidence on. He holed it, and when Perry made a couple of bogeys coming in, the playoff was on.
The first hole of that playoff showed how unique Angel’s mindset was. Playing the 18th again, he drove into the right trees, while Perry and Campbell were down the middle. Angel had a choice between going at the green through a tiny gap in the trees or pitching out sideways, where he’d have a longer shot for this third than Perry or Campbell had for their seconds. Angel felt that pitching out and having a 165-yard third was probably the kiss of death, because bogey was very likely. I asked Angel later how big the gap was. “Bigger than a golf ball,” he said with a shrug. He felt it was far better to gamble and he didn’t hesitate. The gamble in fact backfired when his ball hit a tree, but it ricocheted into middle of the 18th fairway. It was a huge break, but sometimes it takes nerve to take advantage of a good bounce. Angel hit his approach to eight feet and made the putt for a par to stay alive with Perry, who also parred. Campbell bogeyed to fall out of the playoff.
At the second playoff hole, the par-4 10th, Angel again showed his experience. After Perry missed his approach to the the left of the green, Angel, knowing how difficult an up-and-down Perry faced, played his second shot from 170 yards onto the green but short of the hole, leaving himself an easy two-putt. Perry bogeyed, Angel parred, and that was it.
Angel is 49 now and back competing at the Masters as a past champion. He’s a little battered, tendinitis, bursitis and plain age making it difficult to put his big game on display at Augusta National as he once did. As Mickey Wright -- a big fan of Angel’s swing -- once said, it’s not just the years that take their toll, but the mileage. Win or lose, it will be good to see him stalking the fairways, those hulking shoulders and peculiar walk a neat sight for anyone who appreciates Masters lore.