The 1967 Open at Hoylake (or Royal Liverpool if you’re posh) will stay in the mind forever, not because of its winner, the charismatic Roberto de Vicenzo, but because at the moment the hugely popular Argentinian was holding the Claret Jug aloft, I was for the first time meeting the beautiful German blonde who a year later would be my bride.
On holiday in Gottingen, it was the only time Cupid stymied my view of the final day of an Open. In those far-off days it was a Saturday finish. And in those non-mobile, non-internet era and with a pre-Langer nation being blissfully unaware that golf’s greatest championship was in progress, it wasn’t until the following day I was able to read of Roberto’s heroic victory over Jack Nicklaus.
It was a surprise but not a total shock because Roberto, a terrific driver and long-iron player but most of all a delightful human being who played the game with grace, sportsmanship and a twinkle in his eye, had gone close on our links previously.
Runner-up in 1950 and five times third - and third again two years after Hoylake, he was more than due.
He remains the only Argentinian winner of the Open and at 44 was the second-oldest champion behind Old Tom Morris. In a lifetime of golf he speared no fewer than 229 victories around the world, most of them in South America but seven in the USA and nine in Europe. But it was for the Major that got away he is most remembered.
Roll the clock nine months forward from Hoylake to Augusta and the 1968 Masters.
Roberto holes from a yard on 17 for a birdie three and it looks for all money as if he and Bob Goalby would be heading for an 18-hole playoff the following day.
Hold your horses and those cheques, chaps - Roberto’s playing partner and marker Tommy Aaron thought the short putt on 17 was for par and wrote ‘4’ on the card when it should have been ‘3’. In his haste to sign his card, de Vicenzo didn’t spot the cock-up. After all, the 18-hole total was correct. The rule book was clear: if you sign for a bigger score than it was, the higher number has to stand. And nothing could be done. Goalby had won the Masters, de Vicenzo was second.
It was at that point that poor Roberto, in his fractured English, blurted out “What a stupid I am”, five little words which rang round the world of golf and beyond.
Like the gentleman he was, Roberto’s first thought was not for himself but for the reputation of the club and the tournament, adding: “I sorry I cause you so much trouble”. Two years later he received the Bob Jones Award for Sportsmanship.
A lesser-known story about this soft-hearted man concerned one of the many tournaments he won in South America. After collecting his prize, he headed off to the car park only to be accosted by a weeping woman who said her son was seriously ill and needed expensive hospital treatment she couldn’t afford.
De Vicenzo immediately signed over his victory cheque to her. Later on a friend informed him he’d fallen for a scam and there was no sick child. “You mean there is no baby who is dying,” said the great man. “That’s right” came the reply. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week”.
Roberto, with his brawny forearms, Roman nose and awesome strength, last played in the U.K. when he joined other legends in a pre-Open four-hole exhibition to celebrate St Andrews 2000. Partnering Nicklaus and Tom Watson, he announced standing on the 18th tee this would be his final drive in public. With that, he smote the ball 360 yards pin-high. He was 77. What a man!
De Vicenzo wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to rue not checking his scorecard before handing it in. In the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s playing partners Mark Roe and Jesper Parnevik forgot to swap cards on the first tee in round three and were DQ’d for filling in and signing their own.
Just two off the lead, Roe was in contention for an Open for the first and only time and was never the same player again. And Padraig Harrington, five ahead going into the last round of the 2000 Benson & Hedges and 18 holes away from winning hundreds of punters (me included!) a tidy sum, was DQ’d retrospectively when it was discovered he’d forgotten to sign his first-day 64. The signatures in player and marker boxes were both playing companion Michael Campbell’s. The omission only came to light because the Belfry hotel wanted to frame the card.
Paddy Power earned themselves Brownie points by paying out on Pod anyway. A great PR stunt with 18 holes to play but just rubbing more salt into the wound for those who placed their money elsewhere. Betting on golf … it breaks your heart.
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