Ed. note: Roberto De Vicenzo died Thursday at the age of 94. This story was first published in April 2016.
“All that I lose at the Masters is the green jacket,” Roberto De Vicenzo once said. “The prestige, no. My name is in the Masters forever.”
Which is not to say that the hurt ever went away. Almost a half-century later, at his home outside Buenos Aires, De Vicenzo’s thoughts still stray to that Sunday in 1968 when he absentmindedly signed for a final-round score a stroke higher than he had actually shot, handing the title to Bob Goalby.
All my life, if I make a mistake on the golf course, the next day I forget. I have a chance to recover. This mistake, no chance to recover.
He knows that no other golfer—no other athlete—ever signed away a hunk of his legacy as easily as you’d endorse a check. And with a pencil! Where, outside the ancient game, is such a signature binding?
The ending is legal, but there is something missing. The winner hasn’t yet emerged.
De Vicenzo is 93. It was his birthday on that Masters Sunday in 1968. His 45th. When he holed a 9-iron for a deuce on Augusta National’s par-4 first hole, the gallery sang “Happy Birthday.” They sang it again at the end of his round, a stunning 65 that ranks among the greatest finishes in the history of major championships. But Roberto wasn’t happy. He had hooked his 4-iron left of the green on No. 18 and then missed a six-footer for par. There might have to be an 18-hole Monday playoff.
When Bob Goalby and I meet in heaven, we are going to end this duel left unfinished on Earth.
The scorer’s table was just behind the green. De Vicenzo plopped down on a patio chair. Surrounded by club members and seated spectators, he distractedly scanned his card, failing to notice that playing partner Tommy Aaron had given him a 4 instead of a 3 on the 17th hole. De Vicenzo didn’t even total the card. He just signed it. Signed his way into sports infamy.
“Under the Rules of Golf, he will be charged with a 66,” Masters rules chairman Hord Hardin said that day. “Which does not leave him in a tie with Bob Goalby, who is 11-under-par. He is second, 10-under-par.” To which De Vicenzo, South America’s greatest golfer, said, “I play golf all over the world for 30 years, and now all I can think of is what a stupid I am to be wrong in this wonderful tournament. Never have I ever done such a thing.”
Such a thing. Five decades later, people who weren’t even born when it happened remember “what a stupid I am.” And though De Vicenzo long ago came to terms with his mistake, the old man can never, ever forget.
All these years have passed, and we are still talking about that Masters.
So let’s not. Let’s talk, instead, about the achievements that put De Vicenzo in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Beginning with the Litoral Open in 1942, he won 231 tournaments, including 48 national championships in 17 countries. That’s Argentina (9), Belgium, Brazil (6), Chile (3), Columbia (3), France (3), Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Jamaica (3), Mexico (3), Panama (5), Peru (3), Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay (2) and Venezuela (2). “Bear in mind,” says David Mackintosh, longtime golf correspondent for the Buenos Aires Herald, “that when Roberto played those Caribbean events, the fields were mostly PGA Tour players, and that was the PGA Tour’s unofficial winter circuit.”
Bear in mind, too, that when De Vicenzo won the 1967 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, he was 44—making him the oldest Open winner since Old Tom Morris. When he won the first-ever U.S. Senior Open (at Winged Foot in 1980), Roberto was 57; he remains the second-oldest winner of that event. “I won so many tournaments, even I can’t believe it,” De Vicenzo said. “How was it possible to have done all that?”
How indeed? The son of a Buenos Aires house painter, Roberto was the fifth of seven children. He caddied at the nine-hole Club Mitre-Migueletes from the age of 10 or so, sometimes combining looping with babysitting. (“When my player hit a shot, I would pick up the bag and pick up my brother. He was 2 years old.”) His own game evolved from childhood experiments with a tree branch and a cork ball, an origin story similar to that of his idol, Sam Snead, who used a hickory limb to whack rocks around his family’s farm. In time, De Vicenzo’s swing would come to resemble that of Slammin’ Sam. Roberto was 19 when he got to see Snead, along with Jimmy Demaret, in an exhibition at Ranelagh Golf Club, where Roberto was working as an assistant pro. “Snead left me with my mouth open,” De Vicenzo recalled. “He had a harmony in his swing that no one else had. No one from that era was better. Not even Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson.” He added, “Possibly I was longer than Snead. But I hit, and he controlled.”
De Vicenzo first won as a pro at the Rosario Golf Club in central Argentina, returning there to serve as head pro for two years. The club’s walls are decorated with framed photos of a young De Vicenzo with pleated pants, a Roman nose and slicked-back hair. But the notion that he was some sort of high-plains gaucho followed him for years. “He looks like he should have a spotted pony under him,” famed sportswriter Jim Murray wrote, “or he should be doing a tango with a whip in one hand and a señorita in the other.”
Like South Africa’s Gary Player, who claims to have flown more than 15 million miles in his career, De Vicenzo played with an operational handicap. The postwar voyage to a shattered Europe took 10 days, and De Vicenzo’s first flight to the U.S. involved eight stops, with overnight stays in Peru and Panama. Once on the golfing ground, the man they called “El Maestro” anticipated the likes of Vijay Singh, with a daunting practice regimen (“Normally I hit 800 balls a day”) and a ravenous appetite for practice rounds. “That all goes back to good health,” he said. “I never left a tournament because I got sick. Never did my back hurt me. Never had headaches. I never came out in a bad mood.”
Moods? De Vicenzo had no time for them. He was unfailingly genial, flashing a bright smile and cracking people up with his fractured English. Said Jack Nicklaus, “Anyone who knew Roberto knew he was a very modest man, and that’s one of the reasons people liked him so much.” A classic De Vicenzo story has him winning the 1968 Houston Open, just three weeks after the Augusta scorecard fiasco, and then being confronted in the parking lot by a woman who told him a wrenching tale about her daughter’s battle with leukemia. After giving her a few hundred dollars, Roberto was told that he’d been suckered, that the woman was a scammer. “Her daughter is not dying?” De Vicenzo is said to have replied. “My friend, that is the best news I ever heard!”
The story may be apocryphal, but it goes a long way toward explaining De Vicenzo’s enduring appeal. “He’s the most honest soul I’ve ever met,” says the Herald’s Mackintosh. “He’s goodness all the way through.” But De Vicenzo never saw it that way. Puzzled by the ovations he received at every Tour stop, he said, “After the Masters, I should be shot. But people, the fans, they seem to love me. I lose, I do a stupid thing, and I am a hero!”
He certainly hit some heroic shots. One of his gutsiest swings came at Hoylake, in 1967, where he clung to a final-round lead over Nicklaus, who was fresh off a U.S. Open–record 275 at Baltusrol. Having driven far to the right on the par-5 16th hole, De Vicenzo elected to play his second over a stretch marked out-of-bounds. When his ball landed cleanly and rolled to the middle of the green, the Liverpool gallery roared. “I play for it. I make it,” he said afterwards, hugging the Claret Jug. “It was my greatest shot.”
It was a shot, it must be conceded, that history may little note nor long remember. All because of that Sunday afternoon in Georgia when, as Roberto put it at the time, “I lose my brains.”
To be sure, De Vicenzo has suffered other, more tangible losses. Most of his savings reportedly went missing in the 2008 financial meltdown, forcing him to sell his memorabilia. And he’s no longer strong enough to play, although he still drops by his beloved Ranelagh GC to chat with friends and pose for photos by the sign reading CAMPO DE GOLF ROBERTO DE VICENZO.
“My life is good,” he told Mackintosh by phone early in 2017. “I live here quietly with my dear wife, mostly spending time at home. Of course, I’m now 93, so one can’t expect to go on forever. There comes a time when we all have to go.”
When that time comes, he didn’t have to add, he’ll be remembered for—well, you know.