De Vicenzo: 'Best shot of my life'

Argentina's old champion, now 83, remembers the wonder three-wood that made Jack wilt
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The Independent Online

Any identikit of the next Open champion is usually best drawn up by a quick scan down the host course's last few champions. So St Andrews favours the legends, Muirfield the technicians, Carnoustie the sadists and Troon the Americans.

But what of Hoylake? Well, if records stretching back to 1967 can indeed be relied upon, then Colin Montgomerie, Fred Couples and Vijay Singh should all rejoice. Because Royal Liver-pool favours the good old boys. And few came as good, or as old, as Roberto de Vicenzo. When the magnificent Argentinian finally righted his insulting omission from the major record books at the age of 44 everyone was happy. Well, almost everyone.

Speaking from his Buenos Aires home last week, the now 83-year-old revealed the one person who was decidedly grumpy. "It was a, what do you call them, a bookmaker," said De Vicenzo, not, in fact, asking what British people do actually call bookmakers but struggling with his English. "I had beaten Jack [Nicklaus] in two pre-Open exhibitions. So I was happy enough to put £50 on me to win at 66-1. It gave me more than £3,000, which was a lot more than the first prize."

Both cheques were thrillingly earned, with the Open trial form working out perfectly as Nicklaus finished runner-up, two shots off. Every Championship is defined by a single shot, and in De Vicenzo's second to the par-five 16th on the final day there was a whack not only to leave a memory but a huge alteration. This time around that hole will be the 18th as the Royal & Ancient try, in part, to tap in to some of the drama produced by De Vicenzo's 240-yard three-wood to the green across the out-of-bounds.

"It was the best shot of my life," he said without hesitation. "A risk perhaps, but how could a shot to win a Championship like that not be a risk? I was trying to shake off Jack. He did not let go very easily."

Nicklaus wasa few irretrievable shots off the pursued then, but even though the greatest ever was furiously treading water and the challenge of his playing partner, Gary Player, was already sunk, De Vicenzo never was one to sail in on the spinnaker. Golf to the former caddie had always been a means of expression, as he had summed up a couple of years earlier with his description of the perfect shot: "It produces a mixture of pleasure, happiness, wisdom, self-esteem; as if one were being caressed by the clouds."

In the event he was lucky not to be caressed by the crowds, so thunderous was the welcome of his victory. It was an entirely unexpected cacophony, one so untypically British that a few golfing historians believed it paved the way for the future interaction from the Open galleries. To De Vicenzo, however, the support was down to a very simple fact. "The British were sick of the Americans winning their Open every year," he explained. "I was not quite an American."

De Vicenzo is doing himself a great disservice, as his popularity transcended mere patriot- ism. For a start there was the swing, a self-made sculpture of rhythm fused with power that effected as pure a contact as there has surely ever been. "One of the best ball-strikers I saw," said Player. "If not the best."

Then there was the upbringing, which was typically a carrying-bags-to-riches tale; the poor Argentinian boy developing a still-enduring love affair while doing the donkey work for the privileged. "Those days I learned so much," he said. "Think, I could have been on the railroad learning only how to hurt."

Many believe - wrongly, he maintains - that he did hurt when the majors failed to arrive and add lustre to his incredible haul of "other" titles. In all, De Vicenzo won 230 professional events across the globe, four on the PGA Tour, the last of his nine national titles coming when he was 62. Not only that, but his Open record was little short of spectacular. Between 1948 and 1974 he won once, finished runner-up twice, third five times, fourth twice and never once came outside the top 20.

In truth, his hard-luck story made Montgomerie's seem almost fortuitous, and golfing fans warmed to him for it. Of course, after Hoylake it was all to become even more teary when a scorecard error at the Masters the next year denied him a play-off with Bob Goalby. "What a stupid I am," became an epitaph quite touching in its honesty but so wrong in its insinuation.

De Vicenzo was, is, anything but stupid. The manner in which he worked out links golf proved it. "Hogan tipped me to win in Carnoustie in the Fifties," he remembered. "He did so because of my strength from the rough, but although I was good and skillful I didn't have control of the ball. I didn't appreciate the importance and value of The Open. But by 1967 I had learned."

De Vicenzo had planned to make an emotional return to the temple of his graduation this week, but due to the journey - "I don't want to go and not come back" - and an aversion to English tea, he will stay at home. Instead he will do what he has always done; go to the golf club every day and be so enthralled by the many shades of green beckoning him through the clubhouse window that he will rise and attempt to fire a score less than his age (again).

Roberto will spare a thought for Hoylake, though, especially when it is time for a three-wood. "I hope it's a deserving champ-ion," he said. "I'm sure he will be. And I hope he enjoys it as much as I did."


1 Roberto de Vicenzo 278

2 Jack Nicklaus (US) 280

3= Gary Player (US) 281

3= Clive Clark (GB, am) 281

5 A Jacklin (GB) 282

Links Men: Six with the right game for Royal Liverpool

Stuart Appleby Australia

Australia waited 11 years for a major winner and then Geoff Ogilvy unexpectedly won the US Open. Appleby, 35, is due to step up. Pedigree includes the 2001 Australian Open and the last three Mercedes Championships in the wind of Hawaii. Lost 2002 play-off at Muirfield.

Angel Cabrera Argentina

Like Roberto de Vicenzo, Angel Cabrera marries a powerful game with a delicate touch around the greens. Won BMW PGA at Wentworth last year, but has struggled in The Open since his fourth place at Carnoustie. Could be inspired at the scene of his countryman's triumph.

Paul Casey England

No Englishman has won The Open in England since Tony Jacklin in 1969. Luke Donald could do it, but Paul Casey is in the form of his life. Consistently on the leaderboard and won at Gleneagles last month. Former English Amateur champion at Lytham with game for links golf.

Mikko Ilonen Finland

Ilonen earned his place through final qualifying to return to the scene of his 2000 British Amateur Championship win. Turned pro the following year and finished ninth in Open at Lytham. Failed to establish himself on the Tour and is playing on the Challenge circuit this season.

Jose Maria Olazabal Spain

Back in contention for the Ryder Cup and aiming to complete his set of R & A titles after the British Boys, Youth and Amateur wins, the last at nearby Formby. Last year at St Andrews equalled his best Open finish of third from 1992. Also third at the Masters this year.

Tiger Woods United States

Two Open titles at St Andrews but no better than third elsewhere. Needs to temper his aggression and to respect the rough as he avoids the bunkers on the Old Course. Back in business at the Western Open and should employ the two-iron "stinger" shot he used there.

Andy Farrell