De VICENZO: WHAT A GREAT HE WAS

Golf Australia - - AROUND THE TRAPS - WORDS JOHN HUGGAN

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).

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