De VICENZO: WHAT A GREAT HE WAS
IT was the first thing I went to upon hearing the sad news that Roberto De Vicenzo had died. There it was in the top drawer of my office desk, the little green autograph book I treasured as a golf-mad youngster. And inside, opposite those of Neil Coles and Billy Casper, sits the great Argentine’s signature.
It has been there for 47 years now. At the age of nine, going on 10, I attended my first Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1970. And armed with my then almost-pristine book, I went to work as a fully-fledged autograph hunter. Today, there are many past winners of golf’s oldest major on those pages – Gene Sarazen, Henry Cotton, Tom Weiskopf, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino (five times), Kel Nagle, Arnold Palmer, Tony Jacklin, Bob Charles, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Fred Daly – but, by a distance, my favourite encounter remains my brief meeting with Roberto.
I can see him now, a tall and distinguished figure wearing a Scottish-style ‘bunnet’ (cap), marching along the path to the right of the first fairway on the Old Course. My Dad told me who he was and ushered me forward, book and pen outstretched.
“Excuse me, could I have your autograph please?”
Roberto stopped and looked down at the diminutive figure in front of him. Then he smiled. “You know my name?” he asked, the smile broadening. “Roberto.” He laughed, patted my cheeks with both hands and signed his name.
“Practice hard,” he said as he went on his way.
All of which probably took less than 30 seconds of his no doubt valuable time. But what sticks in the memory is that he didn’t simply take the book and silently scribble something unintelligible. No. This gentle giant - I remember being a little intimidated by his size - was good enough and kind enough to engage with this child, to talk with him, to create a lifelong memory. And, in the process, make me a fan of his forever.
All these years later, I remain impressed by this tiny and, to everyone else, insignificant gesture. But, judging by everything I have read in the wake of Roberto’s passing, it was typical of the man. He might have been a major champion. He might have won nearly 300 events big and small around the world. He might have been the winner of the inaugural US Senior Open. He might have been (in)famous for the clerical oversight that (ridiculously) cost him a play-off with Bob Goalby in the 1968 Masters. But more than any of that inherently pointless nonsense, he was simply a warm and generous human being.
Proof of Roberto’s character came in the wake of that pompous debacle at Augusta National 49-years ago. Did he jump up and down, screaming at the unfairness of it all? Did he moan and groan about the fact that the birdie the world saw him make on the 17th hole had, courtesy of his hapless playing partner, Tommy Aaron, been recorded as a par? Did he attempt to embarrass Goalby in any way? He did not. Instead, Roberto blamed himself rather than the stupidity of the rule he had so unfortunately broken. And in doing so he uttered - in his fractured English - the phrase that is surely one of the top-five greatest golf-quotes of all-time: “what a stupid I am.”
In passing, it must be said that Goalby missed an opportunity that day, one he sadly did not have the imagination or gumption to grasp. Had he refused to accept his “victory” and insist on playing-off with Roberto the next day (as was the way of things back then), there were only two possibilities for the then 39-yearold American. Either he was going to be the Masters champion and the sportsman of the century, or “just” the sportsman of the century. Both have to be better than his ultimate fate - being the only Masters winner with an asterisk next to his name.
Anyway, I like to think Roberto would have chosen to do the right thing and give Goalby his deserved shot had their roles been reversed. I like to think that would have appealed to Roberto’s sense of fair play.
One last thing. Roberto was possessed of a sense of humour as well as being one of the best ball-strikers golf has ever seen (his putting was another story). A journalist tells the tale of waiting in line outside the “Green Jacket” restaurant in Augusta during a now far-off Masters week. As the scribe neared the door, Roberto was leaving.
“Hey, Roberto, how was it?”
“It was like Jack Nicklaus.” “Like Jack Nicklaus?” “Yes. Very good but very slow.” What a great he was.
Roberto De Vicenzo during his victorious 1967 Open Championship campaign and the author’s prized treasure (above).