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Roberto De Vicenzo: ‘The choice I made’

Roberto De Vicenzo, the game’s greatest winner, won the last Open at Hoylake and endured heartbreak at Augusta that still stings. At home in Argentina, he lives on his terms
June 01, 2017

Roberto De Vicenzo's meaty and calloused hands have hit as many golf balls—not to mention held more trophies—as those of any man alive, but when he extends a brawny arm to welcome a visitor, his grip is soft. "Bienvenido a mi pais," he says. Just as when he won the 1967 British Open the last time it was played at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, where the championship returns this year, De Vicenzo at 83 remains a charismatic combination of physical prowess and gentle touch.

"Si, tengo mucho . . . feeling," he says when the subject comes up, emphasizing his point in English, his grasp of which remains charmingly fractured. "Para el golf y para la gente." ("For golf and for people.")

In the dining room of the Ranelagh Golf Club in Buenos Aires, De Vicenzo, whose ankles give him trouble, is enough at home to be wearing untied canvas tennis shoes with slacks and a circa-'70s high-collar golf shirt. He jokes that when he took his first job as a pro with the club in 1938, his only shoes were espadrilles. "I haven't changed much," he says.

Indeed, with his Roman nose, sturdy build and bald pate, De Vicenzo looks much the same as he did the last time most Americans saw him—perhaps as he made five birdies in sudden death to carry partner Julius Boros to victory against Tommy Bolt and Art Wall in the 1979 Legends of Golf, the unofficial birth of senior golf. Still, De Vicenzo is not ageless. He walks a bit stiffly, his eyesight is bad, and his face carries an expression best described as contented wistfulness. More than posing the question—"Is that all there is?"—he appears settled on the answer.

"I don't know—I don't want to go and not come back," he says in Spanish when asked if he intends to return to Hoylake in July. "At my age, it is very hard to plan anything."

De Vicenzo is probably overstating his decrepitude. Even when he was winning tournaments all over the globe in the '50s and '60s, he found it difficult to leave Argentina, where his life is devoted to simple abundance, much like the country itself. Since he stopped playing competitively 12 years ago, his routine includes joining friends for long meals built around the national staple of beef, or late breakfasts of revuelto gramajo—scrambled eggs and thin-sliced potatoes mixed with ham and chicken—washed down with café con leche.

As for golf, De Vicenzo averages two full rounds a week with friends and usually shoots in the mid- to high 70s, numbers that cause him to grouse that he should stop playing completely. "It kills him that he is not able to do what he used to do, but if Roberto is not at a golf club at least once a day, he gets restless, even a little depressed," says his longtime friend Raul Cavallini, a retired banker. "He will go to the club and say he is only going to eat lunch and not play, but as soon as he sees someone on the course, he wants to get out for at least a few holes. Golf is his lifeblood."

If so, De Vicenzo seems to get his most potent transfusion on the practice range, often hitting only a 7-iron in a ritual that goes back more than 70 years. "When I was preparing for tournaments, I'd hit at least 800 balls a day, every day," he says, reporting that he now hits about 50. "The mashie niblick was my professor. I knew if I dominated that club, I could dominate them all. I have a very old one at home with the face so worn out that it will hold a ball."

The man who spent so much time away is more devoted than ever to family. This particular Sunday, four generations of De Vicenzos, from his wife of 60 years, Delia; to his two sons, Roberto Ricardo and Eduardo Alfredo; to his 2-year-old great-granddaughter, Manuela, gather at Ranelagh to join the patriarch for a midday meal. "It's difficult in life to maintain two things at once," he says. "For me, it was golf and the family. You can do it, but not so effectively."

It's not a stretch to say that more than any other golfer of the ultimate caliber, De Vicenzo was between clubs when it came to the dilemma put forth by Yeats: "The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work."

"I don't regret," he says. "I never made a lot of money, but enough to live well. Anyway, there are only two kinds of money: the kind you spend, and the kind you leave behind. In one way I'm glad I wasn't more famous, because it left me more free."

De Vicenzo recounts how the last time he went to the British Open, in 2000, he pulled a large safari-style hat low to keep from being recognized on the streets of St. Andrews. But he also remembers with pride the Wednesday-afternoon exhibition of champions over four holes of the Old Course. "This is my last drive in competition," De Vicenzo, then 77, announced to playing partners Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson before delivering a blow of 360 yards, past pin-high, on the home hole.

"Of course, part of me would have liked to have won more major championships and been more famous," says De Vicenzo. "But my character is more comfortable where I have no obligation. I was not like Palmer, or Nicklaus or Gary Player. I wouldn't like to be Tiger Woods. Their life has been one of work, of sacrifice, of leaving many beautiful things in life behind to dedicate to success. Yes, I played all over the world. But more in my own time."


Photo by Andrew Kaufman

Editors' note: This feature originally ran in the July 2006 issue of Golf Digest. On Thursday, June 1, World Golf Hall of Fame member Roberto De Vicenzo died at 94.

De Vicenzo isn't just dropping names. Counting everything, from his first victory at the 1942 Litoral Open to his Legendary Division victory in 1991 with Charlie Sifford in the Legends of Golf, De Vicenzo had 231 wins—and finished second 127 times—in sanctioned professional tournaments. Most were achieved in Latin America; some were big, like his nine victories in the Argentine Open, and some small enough that they, as De Vicenzo admirer Peter Dobereiner quipped, "should have been thrown back to mature."


Photo by Getty Images

But De Vicenzo consistently beat who was in front of him. He also won nine national opens all over Europe, as well as six times on the PGA Tour in fewer than 100 attempts. By the numbers, he was golf's most prolific winner. And by the things that champions know about each other, he was great. "The first time I saw Roberto, I was 17 years old at the [1957] U.S. Open," says Nicklaus. "I missed the cut, and in the third round I went out to see De Vicenzo and Peter Thomson. I remember crawling on my hands and knees between the gallery to get as close as I could, and Roberto is this obviously very strong guy with big arms and hands, and he punches up a little tuft of grass with his brassie and then rips this shot that just seemed extra solid. I always got that sensation watching Roberto hit the ball."

"De Vicenzo was a tremendous striker—one of the three or four best I ever saw," says Player, who played the final round at Hoylake with De Vicenzo. "If he had played a full schedule in America, he would have won a lot of major championships, because he knew how to win."

On this subject, De Vicenzo discards the self-effacing deference he cultivated as the language-challenged foreigner, and—on his home ground—replaces it with plain-spoken pride. "I won so many tournaments even I can't believe it," he says. "I see them all listed, and I am amazed. How was it possible to have done all that?

"Winning is always difficult. But there is something inside winners that is different and works better than it does for others. You know, the thief steals, the winner wins. When I was on the course, I never saw another player and said, 'This one I can't beat.' I had the ability. I had the eye—el ojo del tigre—to judge distance, to see where to hit the ball, to see into my opponent. I knew how to walk the course, to feel it and judge the shot. I knew when to risk.

"Pressure, I handled it. When I was in contention, I could sleep well and eat well. I never left a tournament because I got sick or got hurt. I got my rest, and I was ready. That was natural for me, all that."


Photo by Stephen Munday/Getty Images

No glorifier of the past, De Vicenzo believes he wouldn't be able to duplicate his record today. "There are more good players now," he says. "Before, it was easier to win, harder to make money. Today, it is harder to win, easier to make money. Today there are players who have never won a tournament who are millionaires." And he has observed something else: "There is much more attention, and it steals from the energy of the champion. And once it is stolen, no one gives it back."

Perhaps De Vicenzo's longevity was due in part because he didn't receive—or seek—much attention. In fact, he is best known for the tournament he didn't win, the 1968 Masters. After finishing with a bogey for a 65 on his 45th birthday, De Vicenzo signed a scorecard kept by playing partner Tommy Aaron that noted a 4 rather than the birdie 3 that De Vicenzo made on the 17th hole, the resulting official score of 66 causing him to finish one stroke behind Bob Goalby. De Vicenzo's subdued but agonized reaction—"What a stupid I am to be wrong here"—is among the most memorable sports quotes of the 20th century. De Vicenzo remained so gracious in the aftermath that he was awarded the William D. Richardson Award in 1970 for his outstanding contribution to golf. In his acceptance, he again charmed the multitudes when he noted: "Golf writers make three mistakes spelling my name on trophy ... maybe I'm not the only stupid?"

The sympathy for De Vicenzo even extended to the Augusta National. After the tournament, chairman Clifford Roberts made a point of sending DeVicenzo a prize, a sterling-silver cigarette box engraved with the signatures of the previous winners—the first and only time from 1954 to 1992 that it was given to anyone except the victor. More poignantly, shortly after the tournament a group of friends from Ranelagh sent De Vicenzo a custom-tailored green jacket with his name sewn into the lining. "They had it made here in Argentina," says De Vicenzo. "I was very touched when they gave it to me. Happy, but also a little sad. I wear it on special occasions and holidays at the club. When I put it on, I feel like I'm ready to go into a playoff with Goalby."

Goalby, who received hate mail, took many years to find peace with the outcome. Although the two say they have always remained friends, De Vicenzo divulges tension in the years after the incident.

"I don't know, Goalby seemed to feel I was at fault for him not getting the credit for the victory," says De Vicenzo. "He took it very emotionally, and for many years when I saw him he would say things to me that bothered me. I felt he was pushing me, but I put up with it because I know he was bitter, and because I don't have the English to discuss things with him equally. So I always had the white flag."

Cavallini recalls an awkward moment on the then-senior tour in 1993. "I was with Roberto when we walked into the locker room at La Costa and came across Goalby. He said, 'Roberto, because of you I never won the Masters. You were the real winner.' Roberto sort of shrugged, but it was an antagonistic moment."

Adds De Vicenzo: "Of course it was my fault for signing the incorrect scorecard, but the way the public reacted wasn't my fault. It was his fault. He could have resolved it. All he had to do was say one thing before they presented him with the green jacket: 'Sorry, I prefer that we play off tomorrow.' That would have been sufficient. Then, everything is fixed.

"I think he didn't see the situation clearly. He's much more intelligent than me. He has university education, which I don't have. But maybe I have a better feel for people."

Told of De Vicenzo's comments, Goalby answers with equanimity.

"Yeah, it was awkward between us for a year or so, and that might have been mostly me," Goalby said, wearing his green jacket while being interviewed in the Augusta National clubhouse during this year's Masters. "Because Roberto was getting a lot of the credit, and I was getting mail saying I had to be the worst SOB who ever lived. It was hard to take, because a lot of people thought that I had played with Roberto and intentionally messed up his score.

"You know, people wanted to treat us as equal, as if there were two winners. I remember we both had dinner with Clifford Roberts in the clubhouse on the Sunday night after everything happened. Usually the dinner is with only the winner. That was awkward. We talked about everything but the tournament.

"Then NBC offered us $100,000 to play off in a television match," Goalby says. "Roberto wanted to do it. I didn't, so that was tense. I can see how Roberto might feel I could have changed things by asking for a playoff. But even if I had wanted to play off doesn't mean there would have been one. I couldn't change the Rules of Golf or what they had decided. I mean, if I'm playing with a friend of mine and he hits one O.B., I can't go, 'Aw, just hit another one.'

"But in my mind, Roberto and I never stopped being friends. He's always been a wonderful guy. We teamed up twice in the Legends of Golf." Goalby and De Vicenzo also filmed a commercial for Cobra in 2000 that played off De Vicenzo's scorecard error. "Enough time had passed that we could laugh," De Vicenzo says.

"I can understand how he felt," Goalby adds. "Playing golf for a living is full of hard losses, and that one was one of the hardest ever. And it's gotten easier for me, because a lot of people have either forgotten or never knew what happened. Like I'll go to the Champions Dinner, and some of the younger guys will ask me, 'What year did you win?' . . . 'Oh, 1968.' So it's OK."

To get to a similar place, De Vicenzo has had to take a metaphysical route. "I think this," he says. "For me, the Masters hasn't ended. No se terminó. Technically, the ending was legal. But there is something missing. The winner hasn't yet emerged. It lacks an ending. But I don't think it's a playoff that's going to be settled on Earth. It's going to be in heaven, providing we both get there. I think we are both good men, so I assume we will both end up in the same place."

Vicente Fernandez, who was De Vicenzo's partner in two World Cups, says, "Roberto would beat people with his clubs, but never with a hard attitude. He made friends everywhere. When I was playing in Europe, I would say I was from Argentina, and people in every country would go, 'Oh, De Vicenzo. Welcome.' Just playing with him and watching how he carried himself was the greatest education of my life."


AP Photo


Photo by Andrew Kaufman

De Vicenzo was also a mentor to the young Seve Ballesteros, who laughs when he remembers the older man once drawing him close. "Roberto take my arm and say, 'Severiano, to be a good pro, you must be able to do three things,' " Ballesteros recalled at last year's Open at St. Andrews. " 'You must be able to eat any food. You must be able to sleep in any bed. And you must be able to make love to any woman. . . . But not so well that they will follow you when you leave.' "

De Vicenzo isn't sure how he developed his amiable nature, especially because he grew up having many fights on the streets of Buenos Aires and in his teens even considered becoming a boxer, though he says he gave up the idea because "my nose was too easy to hit."

"I even got along with both Jerry Barber and Charlie Sifford, two players very few players liked and who wouldn't speak to each other," he says, laughing. "Once we all three played together, and the whole round one is saying, 'Roberto, tell that son of a bitch he's away,' and the other is saying, 'Roberto, ask that idiot what he had on that hole.'

"When I play with Charlie Sifford twice in the Legends, we win twice. A good man. Jerry Barber loved to argue. When I first came to America and I was not used to the country, he would tell me I was a bum, because he was a fighter and he thought I had a lot more inside that I could get out. I laughed, and then he would encourage me. He was my friend."

‘For a lot of years, I didn’t appreciate the importance and value of the British Open. But by 1967, I had learned.’

De Vicenzo's nice-guy image overshadows the tremendous pride he takes in his game. His intensity and high standards were evident in the pro-am of the 100th Argentine Open at the Jockey Club last December, where one of his partners was R&A secretary Peter Dawson, who had come to Buenos Aires in part to convince De Vicenzo to come to Hoylake. Dawson, a 2-handicapper, was amazed by the 260-yard drives De Vicenzo can still pump out and the solidity of the strike, saying, "Can you imagine how well he must have hit it when he was younger?" Because De Vicenzo also vividly remembers, in the last few years he has become loath to put his game on public display. When he couldn't reach a par 4 into the wind with two wood shots, he muttered, "There is nothing more ridiculous than an old man straining."

He is, of course, much too harsh. De Vicenzo's swing remains a work of natural art, marked by an easy rhythm and as complete and unfettered a release of the right side as the game has ever seen. But because he played so much of his best golf away from the biggest stages, it's a swing that has been chronically overlooked when experts discuss the game's finest actions. The noted instructor John Jacobs, for example, barely mentions De Vicenzo in several books in which he breaks down the techniques of the greats he has seen, yet in a recent interview Jacobs said, "Roberto had the right golf swing. That's the way I would have loved to have played, it was so right. When everybody else was going with an upright plane, he stayed rotary, and it lasted and lasted."

Of all the game's masters, De Vicenzo had the most in common with Sam Snead. Both learned the game swinging a self-fashioned tree branch (Sam hit cow chips, Roberto cork). Both were preternaturally strong, rawboned men and immensely long drivers. Both emphasized rhythm and timing. Both were wonderful with the wedges. Both shared a weakness on the greens with short putts.

"For me, Sam Snead was the best of all," says De Vicenzo, who first met Snead when he and Jimmy Demaret came to Ranelagh for an exhibition in 1941. "I was very lucky to be exposed to Snead so young. I could hit the ball very hard, and possibly I was longer than Sam. But I only hit the ball; he controlled it. His swing had so much harmony, it left me with my mouth open."

De Vicenzo also got on well with Ben Hogan, whom he met during his first trip to America in 1948. "I know with others he wouldn't do it, but with me, Hogan was always warm," he says. "He would put his arm around me and buy me a drink in the bar. On the course, it was different. He was a man who didn't like to lose. Sam liked to win, but he also took losing well. Hogan, it bothered more."

Such history has been lost on all but insiders, and most regrettably in Argentina, where golf remains largely a rich-man's game played at private clubs, holding little relevance for the masses. Ironically, a long procession of truly talented Argentine golfers, including the powerful Angel Cabrera, were all former caddies who came from hardscrabble backgrounds. None came as far as De Vicenzo.

"Argentina has never known how to value and respect its great figures," says Cavallini. "We have a national joke. An angel asks God, 'Why did you give so much to Argentina—all the land and the water and the resources? Why not leave some for the other countries?' And God says, 'Don't worry. Now I am going to give Argentina one more thing: Argentines.' "

Cavallini sighs. "The point is, we are a country who worships Diego Maradona, a guy with a drug problem who had to get his stomach stapled so he wouldn't eat himself to death and who acts like a fool on his reality show. Even Eva Perón was an opportunist. But most people have no idea about Roberto."

The son of a house painter, De Vicenzo was the fifth of seven children (his five brothers and sister have all passed on). When he was 8, his mother, Rosa, died during childbirth. To make money, Roberto went across the street to the Migueletes golf course to work as a pond boy, retrieving balls. He soon began to caddie, forced at times because of baby-sitting duties to carry his little brother, Juan Carlos, along with his player's bag. It was 1931, the same year Argentina's Jose Jurado double-bogeyed the 71st hole at Carnoustie to lose the British Open by one stroke.

Despite the adversity, De Vicenzo almost instantly developed a love for the game, and he specialized in winning closest-to-the-hole contests against the other caddies for movie-house money.

"The rules were, the other caddies were allowed to say anything or do anything to distract the player, except to touch him," he says. "Some of the stuff was crazy, as you can imagine, but I forced myself not to notice, and I almost always won. It helped me develop concentration. And I found that even though I liked other things in life, I could not tear myself away from golf."

When De Vicenzo's father urged him to get a job on the railroad, Roberto dropped out of school at 15 and became an assistant at Ranelagh, then far out in the country. "I almost turned around when I saw where it was," he remembers. His duties and pay were modest, but for the first time he had the opportunity to practice in an organized way.

"Learning to control the ball inspired me," he says. "I was always trying to improve my swing, and actually never stopped my whole life. But the changes I made have always been my own changes. I had to believe in them, and I had to know how they felt. Then I had to make them mental, put them inside of me. Of course, the sensations change, and then you adjust again. This is the life of golf."

Once he began to play tournaments, De Vicenzo improved rapidly. His powerful build earned him the nickname Spaghetti, Argentine slang for spinach and a twist on the character Popeye. After marrying Delia Castex in early 1946, he went on a Nelsonian tear, winning 18 of the 26 events he played during the next two years.

But it wasn't until 1948 that De Vicenzo could get the financial backing to play in the United States. He was respectable in nine tournaments and finished second in New Orleans, but De Vicenzo did not feel at his best in America, and rarely ever would. For seven years beginning in the mid-'50s, he lived in Mexico City to be closer to the PGA Tour, and it helped him win at Colonial and the All American Open in Chicago. But over the years it did not translate into the success De Vicenzo had hoped for, and he moved back to Buenos Aires.


"If I had played in America regularly, I think I would have won more," he says. "It was very expensive, a very long trip [flying to Miami in the '50s entailed four stops, and sometimes included amphibious landings in Sao Paulo.] The greens were faster, especially at Augusta and the U.S. Open, and would give me trouble. Some years I did not go at all. It was a choice I made."

De Vicenzo's career reached its apex in Great Britain. His record in the British Open is exceptional. In his first appearance, in 1948, he finished third at Muirfield, making a double eagle on the 17th. In 16 appearances from 1948 to 1974, he won once, was second twice, third five times, fourth twice and was never out of the top 20. Indeed, before the 1953 championship that Hogan would dominate at Carnoustie, he called De Vicenzo the favorite.

"Hogan mentioned me because of my brute strength in the rough," says De Vicenzo, who finished sixth that year. "I had abilities, but in those days, I didn't have complete control of the ball. I could make a mistake at any moment. I think for a lot of years, I didn't appreciate the importance and value of the British Open. But by 1967, I had learned."

De Vicenzo was 44 when he came to Hoylake, and he had worked hard for a year weakening his grip to better play a fade. The control he gained would also be a key to his performance the following spring at Augusta, and he knew the work was paying off when he won two pre-Open exhibitions in England against Nicklaus. It gave De Vicenzo the confidence to place £500 on himself—at 70-to-1 odds—to win. The £35,000 payoff was greater than any first-place prize he ever won.

De Vicenzo was also energized by the gallery support he had built up in the British Isles. "It was an era in which Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had all the people pulling for them," he says. "When another player feels that, it weakens him. In the British Open, the English were tired of Americans winning, and in this case they wanted De Vicenzo to win. In the final moments, that helped me."

De Vicenzo started the fourth round with a two-stroke lead over Player, whom he was paired with, and three over Nicklaus, one group ahead. De Vicenzo had played a near-flawless round when he came to the dogleg-right, 529-yard 16th (the 18th for this year's championship), bordered tightly all along the right by out-of-bounds. Now leading Nicklaus by two, De Vicenzo drove down the right side and chose a 3-wood for his second from 240 yards. "It was a risk, but all shots at the end of championships have risk," he says. Caught flush, the small British ball bounded within 20 feet of the pin.

"It was the best shot of my life," says De Vicenzo, who shortly after the championship tried to describe the perfect shot. "It produces a mixture of pleasure, happiness, wisdom, self-esteem, as if one were being caressed by clouds," he wrote in an Argentine golf magazine. Perhaps realizing the futility of his undertaking, he concluded, "It's hard to explain. You have to feel it."


Photo by Andrew Kaufman

Of course, De Vicenzo has always had a lot of feel, for golf and for life. Enough that even Yeats would have applauded his attempt to find perfection in both.