Angel Cabrera: Shoeless 'slumdog' to millionaire
Born in a shanty town, Angel Cabrera has won one of the most lucrative titles in sport. James Corrigan tells his story – from rags to Green Jacket
Tuesday 14 April 2009
There are now two professionals competing on the Tours proper with a Green Jacket and a US Open title to their name. It is fair to say, however, the pair were in wildly different moods yesterday as they reflected on a Sunday night of the highest drama.
First there is Tiger Woods, Mr Sour himself. The world No 1 must have been the only person on the planet who did not take any enjoyment whatsoever from the "Tiger and Phil show", as he and Mickelson pegged back the leaders on the last day of the Masters with all the certainty of the tortoise and that hare. In fact, Woods detested it and made no secret of his disgust. With his ill-advised "I almost won with a band-aided swing" statement, he not only managed to pour scorn on his coach Hank Haney – with whom there are the first real signs of tension – but also, of course, on the validity of the achievement of the champion. Not that Angel Cabrera would care.
The Argentine is not what one would call expressive and a feature, perhaps the feature, of his play-off victory was his ability to take it all in that loping stride of his.
But then, where Cabrera comes from feelings are prone to stay hidden. In his Cordoba shanty town the glory comes in the survival. Those harsh beginnings have led to Cabrera, who won $1.35m here, being labelled golf's "Slumdog Millionaire". "My parents didn't have any plans for me," explained Cabrera, after denying Kenny Perry on the second sudden-death hole. "Economically, it was rough. We were poor. There was no money for school so there was really nothing for me to do. There was not much hope of any kind of future.
"I wasn't able to finish primary school. I became a caddie when I was 10 to put some food on the table, so that's why probably these moments are enjoyed even more than the common things. I definitely had to play golf to make a living, to feed my two kids and wife. I had no other option."
The Cabrera tale is one of the most lovingly told in the privileged locker rooms. The agent Chubby Chandler has become a close friend of the 39-year-old. "When Angel first turned up at the golf club to ask for a job, he didn't even have any shoes," said the manager of Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy. "It is probably why they called him 'el Pato' – 'the Duck' – because of his big feet. He is a lovely lad and deserves all this for clawing his way up from such a poor background. It is a real rags-to-riches story."
But there was a lot more to it than the merely personal. His country would have seen the hand of God at work. Augusta, they felt, owed Argentina. In 1968, the year before Cabrera was born, their Open champion Roberto De Vicenzo wrongly signed for a four instead of a three – and missed out on a play-off with Bob Goalby by a single shot. It was then that De Vicenzo uttered the immortal line: "What a stupid I am." Now in his eighties, De Vicenzo has inevitably taken a close interest in Angel's ascent.
"When I won the US Open, Roberto gave me a picture where he has in his hand a Green Jacket," revealed Cabrera. "And he said, 'I hope this gives you luck so some day you can bring back a Green Jacket for yourself.' It's not going to change what happened to him. But this win, to take it back home ... well it's really going to help the game in our nation."
Golf in Argentina has already undergone something of a revolution in the last decade, with new courses being built and the working classes being encouraged. The impact of Cabrera should not be underestimated. While his major breakthrough at Oakmont two years ago was greeted with phone calls from the president, the chaqueta verde is in a different league. The Masters holds a special place in the hearts of his countrymen, dwarfing even the Open Championship in its importance. Cabrera admitted, however, that he still has some way to go before he joins the biggest Argentinian sporting superstars. "The Masters is the Masters – what I do is what I do," he said. "What Diego Maradona does or [the basketball star] Manu Ginobili does is their game. Football has always been the biggest sport in my country. I won the Masters, but that's not going to change football's status there."
Cabrera's status, though, has definitely changed. The guts he showed on the first extra hole identified him as one of the coolest performers in the golfing cauldron. His chief inspiration is Seve Ballesteros and the Spaniard would have been proud of how his friend extricated himself from a seemingly impossible position behind a tree to the right of the 18th fairway.
Cabrera had no option but to take a lunge and it somehow found the fairway. "I had this much room," he said, indicating a foot with his hands. "All I can say is that the gap was bigger than the ball. You need luck sometimes."
There was nothing lucky about his sand-wedge into six feet or indeed the clutch putt down the slope. All it took then was for Perry's nerve finally to give and Angel was back in his heaven, just as he had been in Pittsburgh almost two years before.
Yet there was something different on this occasion. At Oakmont, he dealt with the pressure by chain-smoking. "Some players have sports psychologists, others have God, I have Marlboros," he famously said. This time there was no outside help. Cabrera has given up the cigarettes, although the paunch will confirm the gym remains a no-no.
That was doubtless where Woods was yesterday as he dealt with his frustrations. On Saturday, he was seen "having words" with Haney as his swing continued to fail him. His mood had not improved by Sunday evening, despite his starring role in a compelling duel.
"I hit it so bad today warming up – I was hitting quick hooks, blocks, you name it," said the American, who finished tied sixth, his worst placing at Augusta since 2004. "I hit it all on the range and then on the very first hole I almost hit it into the eighth fairway. It's one of the worst tee shots I have ever hit starting out. I fought my swing all day and just kind of band-aided around and almost won the tournament with a band-aid swing today. It was just terrible. I don't know what was going on."
Woods will surely figure it out by the Players Championship in Sawgrass in three weeks' time. Cabrera will be there waiting for him.
All about Angel: Cabrera's career
Place of birth: Cordoba, Argentina
Height: 6ft 1in
Turned pro: 1989
Tour wins: 2001 Open de Argentina, 2002 Benson & Hedges International Open, 2005 BMW International Open
Major wins: 2007 US Open, 2009 Masters
World golf ranking before the Masters: 69
Ranking after Masters: 18
*He is the first Argentine to don the Green Jacket in Masters history.
*He's known affectionately as "El Pato" (the Duck), a reference to his waddling gait.
*In 39 major tournaments, he has eight top 10 finishes and has failed to make the cut on 12 occasions.
*In majors where he has made the cut, his average finish is 25th.
*For his first major victory, Cabrera came from four shots behind heading into the final round at the Oakmont Country Club in 2007, to win with a score of five over par, one stroke clear of Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.
*Cabrera was the only player to card an under-par round twice in the 2007 US Open –only eight under-par rounds were managed throughout the entirety of the tournament.
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