Roberto De Vicenzo was sitting in the corner of a sponsor’s tent at the 2009 Argentine Open, patiently awaiting his invited guest’s arrival. The emotion I recall feeling when we were introduced was guilt, because both of us knew the primary subject of our conversation would be the darkest moment in his career.
El Maestro quickly absolved any guilt with his radiant charm and grace.
“Ow-GOO-sta,” he said with a chuckle. “What will we talk about?”
The subject of the 1968 Masters Tournament and De Vicenzo’s infamous scorecard error which cost him a place in a playoff with Bob Goalby was well-rehearsed territory for Argentina’s greatest golfing champion in the nearly five decades until his death Thursday at age 94. On this warm December afternoon, he oberto De Vicenzo was sitting in the corner of a sponsor’s tent at the 2009 Argentine Open, patiently awaiting his invited guest’s arrival. The emotion I recall feeling when we were introduced was guilt, because both of us knew the primary subject of our conversation would be the darkest moment in his career.had long ago buried any regret of a result that oddly rivaled his victory at the 1967 British Open at Hoylake as his legacy.
“All that I lose at the Masters is the jacket,” De Vicenzo said. “The prestige, no. My name is in the Masters forever. It’s 42 years past and we are still talking about the Masters.”
Despite induction in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1989, De Vicenzo’s name doesn’t often get thrown into the conversation with Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and the rest of golf’s greatest players who accumulated multiple major victories.
However, there was no more prolific winner in the world than De Vicenzo, who won 231 professional tournaments – 96 times outside Argentina with 48 national open championships in 17 different countries.
Considering international travel, when he set out in the late 1940s, consisted of a 10-day voyage across the mine-strewn Atlantic to reach Europe and three-day, eight-stop flight itineraries to get to the United States, it wasn’t quite as simple as hopping on a private jet.
This was the only way De Vicenzo was going to make more money than following his father’s desired career path into house painting.
“In Argentina, to get 5 cents is difficult, especially in golf,” he said. “When I work as a caddie, I get for 18 holes 1 peso 10. That was 30 American cents. One lesson charged 3 pesos. That was nothing. I tried to get more money is when I went out.”
At his peak, he earned $100,000 a year even though he averaged seven victories a season from 1948-74. The senior tour didn’t launch until he was already 57 or he could have cashed in more.
“I catch everything, como se dice, the horse by the tail,” he said with a laugh. “But I have something.”
His greatest achievement was winning the claret jug at Hoylake in a two-stroke victory over Nicklaus in 1967. Nicklaus recalled De Vicenzo Thursday as “not only a great golfer, but a great friend.”
“He represented his country, he represented the game of golf and he was one of the really good guys,” Nicklaus said.
De Vicenzo was a beloved figure in his native Argentina. He set the stage for 2009 Masters champion Angel Cabrera as well as Eduardo Romero, Fabian Gomez, Andres Romero and Emiliano Grillo.
De Vicenzo’s grace was never greater than that April in 1968, two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. That Masters Sunday was his 45th birthday, and he was serenaded on the first tee with a chorus of Happy Birthday. He proceeded to hole his 9-iron for an eagle 2 on the opening hole, followed by birdies at 2 and 3 that turned a two-shot deficit to Player into a two-shot lead. He added birdies at 8, 12, 15 and 17 before a bogey on 18 left him shooting what should have been 65 and earned a Monday morning date with Goalby for an 18-hole playoff.
Disgusted by his closing bogey and distracted by a request to go to the interview room, De Vicenzo quickly signed his card without really looking, not noticing that playing partner Tommy Aaron had written a par 4 where a birdie 3 should have been on the 17th hole. Aaron tried to catch De Vicenzo before he left the area of the open-air scoring table on the apron of the 18th green, but once he stepped away the error was set and his final score was 66, leaving him runner-up.
“What a stupid I am,” remains his most famous quote.
It was the grace with which he accepted his unfortunate fate that still lingers almost 50 years later. In 1970, he received the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor, for his distinguished sportsmanship in golf. Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts even presented him with a cigarette box like the ones the club used to give to the champion.
“I didn’t accept finishing in second place; I accepted the rules,” De Vicenzo said. “That respect that I have earned is the green jacket which eluded me in 1968 in Augusta. It’s my victory.”
In the aftermath, Goalby said “I feel sorry for Roberto,” but De Vicenzo said he felt the same for Goalby, whose greatest career triumph was overshadowed.
“Goalby is the victim of what happened,” De Vicenzo said. “I’m sorry what happened. He not get the respect of the people. Not for him. It’s my fault. He did not have nothing to do with it.”
In his biography titled Roberto De Vicenzo, he wrote that judgment day for that 1968 Masters has yet to come.
“I have a feeling the 1968 Masters hasn’t yet finished,” he said. “When Bob Goalby and I meet in heaven, we are going to end this duel that has been left unfinished here on Earth.”
El Maestro is first on that celestial tee. Que en paz descanse.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219