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De Vicenzo is one runner-up who'll never be forgotten

Friday, April 02, 2010
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

A mistake on Roberto De Vicenzo's scorecard during the 1968 Masters Tournament cost him a playoff for the green jacket.

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Roberto De Vicenzo is defined not by how he lost the 1968 Masters, but by his sportsmanship. "I didn't accept finishing in second place, I accepted the rules," the 86-year-old De Vicenzo said.

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina It is a grossly unfair place to start a conversation with a man who won 231 worldwide tournaments, including the British Open, but people always want to talk to Roberto De Vicenzo about the one he lost in 1968.

"All that I lose at the Masters is the jacket," De Vicenzo said of his infamous runner-up finish at Augusta National Golf Club. "The prestige, no. My name is in the Masters forever. It's 42 years past and we are still talking about the Masters."

Gary Player likes to say that the only people who remember you when you finish second are your wife and your dog. De Vicenzo defies that axiom. The Argentinian whom his countrymen reverently call "El Maestro" is universally remembered for losing his chance at a playoff in the 1968 Masters Tournament for signing an incorrect scorecard. His response to the setback - "What a stupid I am" - is an iconic sports quote.

What defines De Vicenzo is not how he lost but how he handled it. He did not blame Tommy Aaron for marking down par instead of the birdie he made on the 17th hole. He did not whine about the fairness of the punishment. He did not curse Bob Goalby for donning the green jacket that could have been his.

"I didn't accept finishing in second place; I accepted the rules," De Vicenzo said.

Bowed only slightly by age (De Vicenzo will turn 87 on April 14), not a hint of haunting is present in the sunken eyes that peer from behind his Roman nose. De Vicenzo is as proud of his place in Masters lore as he is of Angel Cabrera for finally bringing a green jacket to Argentina.

Roberto De Vicenzo birdied the par-4 17th hole. He failed to catch playing partner Tommy Aaron's scoring error and signed for a par, which cost him a playoff spot in the 1968 Masters.

(Special)

"That respect that I have earned is the green jacket which eluded me in 1968 in Augusta," De Vicenzo said in his recently released biography. "It's my victory."

World beater

Golf seemed an unlikely way for De Vicenzo to lift himself out of the poverty of his childhood. His father preferred he join him as a house painter, but Roberto was drawn to the game he learned by beating rocks with a stick and nails.

In an era when international travel wasn't as easy as hopping onto a private jet, De Vicenzo set out to conquer the world. It was a task that would make even the well-traveled Player blush.

Getting to Europe in the late 1940s required a 10-day voyage across the Atlantic, which was still strewn with mines from World War II. The first time De Vicenzo flew from Buenos Aires to the United States, in 1947, the flight required three days and eight stops, including overnight stays in Peru and Panama.

"The airplanes were very small, and no airports had lighting, so you had to fly during the day," he said.

Gay Brewer puts the green jacket on 1968 Masters winner Bob Goalby. De Vicenzo said Goalby was the victim of what happened that day. "He not get the respect of the people. Not for him. It's my fault," the runner-up said.

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Considering all the trouble, what possessed him to forge a life on the road?

Money.

"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."

You can't argue with the success of that venture. From the 1942 Litoril Open to the 1992 Center Senior Open, De Vicenzo won 231 times - 96 times outside Argentina. He won the national open championships of 17 countries.

At the peak of his earning power, De Vicenzo was winning about $100,000 a year. He averaged almost seven worldwide wins a year from 1948-74.

When young countryman Andres Romero earned $1.1 million for his lone PGA Tour victory in New Orleans in 2008, De Vicenzo couldn't help but do the math.

Angel Cabrera (left) says he wants to win the one major that Roberto De Vicenzo did - the British Open. Cabrera finished one stroke out of a playoff for the claret jug in 1999. Cabrera and De Vicenzo were together at the Argentine Open in December in Tigre, Argentina.

(File/Staff)

"To make that kind of money took me 10 years - and I won seven tournaments every year," he said.

De Vicenzo couldn't even maximize cashing in on the senior tour, which didn't start until 1980 when he was 57. He won the inaugural U.S. Senior Open that year.

"I catch everything, como se dice, the horse by the tail," he said with a laugh. "But I have something."

The incident

De Vicenzo played in the Masters 15 times, tying for 12th in his debut in 1950. He considered being invited to play a dulce - "a treat for the players."

In 1968 he seemed poised to win the Masters. The year before, he had won the British Open at Hoylake. Adding a green jacket would have sealed his place among the game's greats in the prime era of Jack Nicklaus and Player.

"Winning two big tournaments in two years - only the great players do it," he said. "You have to have something inside."

The final round in 1968 was shaping up to be what De Vicenzo called his "lucky day." It was his 45th birthday, and the patrons serenaded him with Happy Birthday on the first hole. He responded by knocking his 9-iron into the cup for an eagle 2. He followed it up with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3.

"I start two shots behind Gary Player and after the first three holes I was two shots in front of Gary Player," De Vicenzo said.

He continued to play beautifully, adding birdies at 8, 12, 15 and 17 before a bogey on 18 left him shooting what should have been a sterling 65.

De Vicenzo was a little disgusted with himself for hitting over the 18th green and missing a 6-foot par putt. But the galleries applauded his round and sang for his birthday again.

It was under this mix of emotion and chaos that he went over to the open-air scorer's table situated just a few feet from the green and the crowd.

He absent-mindedly attested the card Aaron had kept for him, not noticing the 4 on the 17th that should have been a 3.

"I hit the ball three feet from the hole and make birdie (on 17) and he made the mistake and anybody can make a mistake," De Vicenzo said of Aaron, who, oddly enough, earned a degree in math from University of Florida. "It's easy to make a mistake."

Aaron said that De Vicenzo was distracted when a club member tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to go to the press building, and signed the card without even looking.

Aaron noticed the mistake and quickly tried to call De Vicenzo back to fix it, but the Argentinian had already left the scoring area, making the mistake official.

"It was sickening to me that it happened," said Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion, who said De Vicenzo owned up to the mistake immediately.

It's a mistake that still occurs despite numerous safeguards to try to prevent it; it happened to Mark Roe at the 2003 British Open and to Sergio Garcia at the 2007 PGA Championship.

"Now it's not so easy to make mistake because the golfers have more protection," said De Vicenzo, who still believes players must be held responsible for their own scores. "Before, the golfer we no have protection. In 1968, the only guy who had protection was Arnold Palmer. We not have no protection. You sign the scorecard three feet from the 18th green with people all around me. Everything is different."

The next year at Augusta, a small tent was erected behind the 18th green to give the players some privacy to more carefully examine their cards, which also had been altered to include a perforation for the scorer to keep his own and his playing partner's score.

"Man, it's like going to a CPA in there," one player said.

The first error caught under the new system was made in 1969 by Mason Rudolph, who had written a 4 instead of a birdie 3 made on the 18th hole by Aaron.

"Roberto's Tent" was later replaced by the familiar small green hut that exists today.

The victim

Back in Argentina, De Vicenzo's fans were devastated.

"Here it was like a cemetery," said Eduardo Romero, who was 13 in 1968. "People were talking about Roberto and everybody was destroyed here."

To this day, however, De Vicenzo doesn't consider himself the wronged party.

"Goalby is the victim of what happened," he 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."

Goalby - who remains friends with De Vicenzo - reacted like everyone else when it was over and the ruling had been meted out.

"I feel sorry for Roberto," he said.

De Vicenzo laughs that Goalby made only "one mistake" that could have lifted any fog from a public relations standpoint.

"He should have said, 'I'm sorry, but I want to play the playoff tomorrow,'" he said. "The Masters association would say no, that the green jacket goes to you because there's no way to do this. It would be clever to say on the television, 'But I want to play tomorrow,' because a million people would say, 'What a nice man.' He did not say that. He made this mistake."

Goalby turned down a $90,000 offer the next year to face De Vicenzo in an 18-hole match to be promoted as a belated playoff. De Vicenzo also thought creating such a match would be exploitation. That judgment day will come yet, he believes.

"I have a feeling the 1968 Masters hasn't yet finished," he said in his biography, Roberto De Vicenzo. "When Bob Goalby and I meet in heaven, we are going to end this duel that has been left unfinished here on Earth."

The aftermath

The day after his devastating mistake, De Vicenzo was riding in a car with golfer Jerry Barber to the next event in Wilmington, N.C., instead of facing Goalby in an 18-hole playoff. He listened to Barber lecture him the whole way.

"Jerry Barber was a very concentrated man," De Vicenzo said. "Augusta to Wilmington by car and I have to hear so many things Jerry tells me. 'You are stupid. You are yada, yada ...' So three hours later I want to get out of the car."

After the first round in Wilmington, De Vicenzo looks at the scoreboard to see Barber shot 92.

"I say, 'What happened to Jerry Barber?' Well, Jerry Barber played five holes with 16 clubs," De Vicenzo said with a laugh. "I say to Jerry Barber, 'You are stupid!' and everything he say to me."

The next week in Houston, De Vicenzo won what turned out to be his last of six victories on the U.S. tour. Some wonder whether the Masters disappointment had some residual effect.

"I've probably talked to him 10 times, and every time he tells me a different thing," Romero said of De Vicenzo's Masters recollection. "He was completely destroyed for one or two years. Sometimes you can be at the top of the mountain and when you lose you come down a little bit. He accepted that after that I'm finished."

De Vicenzo acknowledges that it was hard to return to Augusta after 1968. He played in six more Masters until 1975, but turned down invitations to play in 1976, '77 and '79 because he grew weary of the whispers and chiding he heard from galleries.

Once, he overheard a man telling his son, "You see, this is the man who made a mistake because he doesn't know how to add."

"I didn't go anymore because when I play good people start bothering me - 'You signed the scorecard wrong, you can't count ...'" he said. "I say no more. Disappointed. Difficult to control the thousand heads. It was nothing to do with Augusta or the Masters."

His reputation was only enhanced by his grace in defeat. The 1968 Masters was during the height of Vietnam War unrest and just a week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. America was hungry for sporting heroes, and De Vicenzo fit the bill.

De Vicenzo was honored in 1970 with the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship from the U.S. Golf Association. The Golf Writers Association of America presented him with the William D. Richardson Award for outstanding contributions to golf. He was the award's first international recipient.

Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts presented him with a cigarette box like the ones the club used to give to the champion.

Among his most prized possessions is a paint-ing that depicts the infamous scorecard and his profile. Someone also gave him a replica of the famous green jacket.

"Anyone can get a green jacket," De Vicenzo said. "I have many green jackets at my house, but it is not like the green jacket that's Cabrera's."

His reward has been the respect that people have held for 42 years.

"I have my reputation around the world because of the Masters - because I respect the rules and I respect the organization," he said.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

WORLD CHAMPION

Among Roberto De Vicenzo's 231 worldwide victories were six on the U.S. tour and nine in Europe, including the 1967 British Open at Hoylake. De Vicenzo won 48 national open championships in 17 countries:

Argentina (9)

Belgium

Brazil (6)

Chile (3)

Colombia (3)

France (3)

Germany

Great Britain

Holland

Jamaica (3)

Mexico (3)

Panama (5)

Peru (3)

Puerto Rico

Spain

Uruguay (2)

Venezuela (2)

- Scott Michaux, staff writer

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