When Roberto de Vicenzo, that most amiable Argentinian, arrived at Hoy-lake on the Irish Sea near Liverpool last week, it was not to win the 96th annual British Open. He had given up on that after 20 years of strenuous but unavailing effort. "This time I not try so hard to win," said the man who has finished second once and third five times in the world's oldest golf tournament. "I just come to see my friends and have a good time."
When the week was over, Roberto had certainly enjoyed himself and so had his friends, thousands of whom had poured out to witness his victory. The final day turned out to be little more than a triumphant parade from tee to green, with De Vicenzo displaying the calm of a man completely in command of his world while holding his two-stroke lead over a pressing and determined Jack Nicklaus. The crowd of 8,000 pounded its hands together with applause like the sound of rolling surf each time Roberto's broad shoulders and tan face came into view around a corner. At the age of 44, after a long career that had seen him win no less than 30 national championships in 14 different countries, after being regarded—when a putter was not in his hands—as one of the game's great figures, Roberto had won his first major title. He did it by shooting a 10-under-par 278, only two strokes off the British Open record. And he did it by sinking putts.
"It's a pity it's come so late," remarked Britain's 60-year-old Henry Cotton, who first won the British Open at the age of 27 and last won it in 1948, the year that Roberto first entered the tournament. "But now that it's happened, he may never stop winning."
Though U.S. professionals regard the British Open as the easiest major tournament in the world to win, it is not all that easy. If it were, more of them would play in it, for winning it can be worth a fortune (Tony Lema estimated his 1964 victory brought him $150,000). One reason for it being difficult to win is that, despite a total purse this year of only $42,000, the tournament draws first-rate players from all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, Europe and the U.S.—in depth. From the U.S. last week came Doug Sanders, Phil Rodgers, Bert Yancey, Deane Beman, Masters champion Gay Brewer and U.S. Open champion Nicklaus, a contingent that sponsors of one of those $200,000 prize-money jobs back in the States would be proud to have. Yet all but Nicklaus finished so far down the list of scores that their prize money earnings in pounds could easily have been confused with their weights, except for the plump Rodgers, who finished tied for 43rd and picked up ¬£75, or Brewer, who missed the halfway cut and didn't make a shilling.
Another reason is the complexity of the British seaside courses on which the Open is always played. They resemble nothing seen in the U.S. The fairways, never watered, are as hard as adobe and as tricky to negotiate as a twisting country lane. The wind usually comes whipping full force in off the sea as if the gods were angry at the thought of grown men thrashing a little white ball with such dedication. And thrashing is the word, for the work could often be better done with a scythe.
The Royal Liverpool course at Hoy-lake, though a fine one, is probably the ugliest of all the famous British links. With the exception of the five holes that roll across the sand dunes separating the rest of the course from the tidal River Dee, it is so flat that a Kansas farmer gazing out across the acres of knee-high grass and shimmering heat might have thought he was home. When viewed from a distance, there is no hint that a golf course lurks down there in the hay. After the six-week drought which preceded this British Open the rough was high, dry and omnipresent. Hay fever had Peter Thomson and Gary Player wheezing, and Peter Alliss, long one of Britain's top players, was actually sidelined by the rough. One under par on the final day, he ripped a muscle in his back while trying to slash a shot from the deep grass on the 6th hole and had to be led from the course by a nurse and a doctor.
It is such testing aspects of British golf that have prompted De Vicenzo to announce each year that this British Open is his last. He would, ironically, not have been at Hoylake at all last week were it not for a special television match that had been scheduled at Royal Birkdale in nearby Southport the previous Wednesday against Jack Nicklaus (De Vicenzo beat Nicklaus by two strokes in that one, too).
"These courses so tough," he has explained, in his deep, resonant voice, "every time I am standing in rough trying to hit the ball I say to myself, This will be my last year.' "
Roberto may have been thinking the same thing even after the first day of play this year, for the leaders were a group of locals whose names were no better known than those of some of the hip rock groups that play in the basement cafés of nearby Liverpool; call them Lionel and the Nonentities. Lionel Platts, a hulking, 32-year-old professional from Yorkshire who has seen better pro tour days, led the crew with a crackling 68. The rest, at 69, were Peter Jones, Jimmy Hume, David Bonthron and Jack Wilkshire, all from Scotland or England or Wales, and as a group they were causing a flutter of hope to stir in British breasts.
Not since Max Faulkner in 1951 has a native been able to win the British Open, and this is a source of much pain to the home folks. They have enjoyed it when Hogan has come to show them his shot-making and take their trophy. Witnessing the glorious daring of Arnold Palmer was nice for a few years, and Peter Thomson and Gary Player and Tony Lema and Phil Rodgers and Jack Nicklaus have all been stimulating in their fashion, but what is really wanted—in a polite royal and ancient way, of course—is for some bright British lad to take on all these visitors and stick it in their ear.
Hence the pleasure at the first-day scores of Platts and company, which were not really significant, and the knowing nods about Clive Clark and Tony Jacklin three days later, which were meaningful, since Clark was to tie Player for third, and Jacklin, who played so well in the Masters last April, was only one more stroke back. Clark, who is just 22 and has a wonderfully compact American-type swing, particularly impressed the galleries—and some other people, too. "Boy, has he improved," said Nicklaus. Henry Cotton about summed up the British effort when he said, referring to Clark, "Isn't it nice we have someone who can play when the whip is out."
Since Britain's opening-round leaders could not sustain their performance when the whip was out, by the end of the second day of play the game's stars had reasserted themselves and life was back to normal. Nicklaus, who was in with a 71 and a 69, and Australia's Bruce Devlin, with two scrambling 70s, were the leaders, and De Vicenzo was in a four-way tie for third, just a shot back.
Roberto had finished early on the second day, and when Nicklaus came in two hours later the Argentinian was sitting by the picture window on the second floor of Royal Liverpool's musty, rust-red brick-and-stucco clubhouse eating lunch with a friend. "You know who I think is going to win this tournament," he said, brushing his ample schnozz with a table napkin, "is old man with great big nose."
The old man virtually did it the very next day. He shot a five-under-par 67 and took a two-shot lead over Player, who also had a 67, and a three-shot lead over Nicklaus. But it was the way he did it that was astonishing. For just about the first time in his life he was sinking putts. Afterward he stretched out on a bench in the dark, tiny Royal Liverpool locker room. His shoes were off, exposing a pair of bright red socks, his head was resting on a leather clothing bag and his brawny, brown fist was wrapped around a tall drink. "Yesterday I play like a jo jo, all over the course," he said, "but today I hit some very good iron shots and I started feeling good on the greens."
Roberto saying he felt good on the greens was the equivalent of Queen Elizabeth announcing that she feels good in a bikini. For two decades legends have been passed around the world about Roberto's extraordinary inability to putt: the ones he has not gotten close to the hole from two feet, the four-putt greens that seem as much a part of his life as his passport. Compared to De Vicenzo, Ben Hogan is a regular shark with a putter. At home in Ranelagh, near Buenos Aires, De Vicenzo has 40 putters, emphatic testimony to this golfing tragedy. Then this spring, on a short visit to the pro tour in the U.S., which included a second-place finish in the Dallas Open, he picked up his 41st putter, a gray mallethead.
He arrived in England with the new putter, and on Monday of Open week he spent hours on Royal Liverpool's putting green. "My driver is beautiful," he told questioners. "My middle irons are beautiful. That doesn't matter. But my putter. Oh, my." Even his caddie, Willie Aitchison, was trying to help. "Roberto says to me com'est'da or something and I say to him, 'Hit the putt through. Don't stab it.' "
By the third round Roberto certainly wasn't stabbing it. He holed an eight-foot putt for a par on the 1st hole, a 10-footer for a birdie on the 6th, and then on the 7th, a 193-yard par-3 with a green so narrow there was hardly room to place the flagstick, he was faced with a 13-foot putt to make par. In the locker room he sat up briefly to lend emphasis to his account of what happened. "I hit my tee shot over the green," he said. "Yesterday I make three bogeys on the short holes, and now I hit my chip way past the hole. I thought, 'God damn, another four,' so I get mad and hit that putt, pow, right in the hole. After that I no worry about putting." Roberto holed two more putts for birdies on the 9th and 13th holes and picked up three more birdies by reaching par-5s in two shots. In all, he took only 31 putts, about 10 under par for Roberto in this department.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, who sank one 18-inch putt and two-putted every other green—missing from under 20 feet no fewer than 10 times—could appreciate the pain of what De Vicenzo has been suffering all these years. The evening following the second round Jack had invited some friends over to a house which he and his wife Barbara and Deane Beman had rented, for some Scottish beefsteaks and bridge. Beman, an aggressive bidder, was paired with Jack at the bridge table and played practically every hand, leaving Nicklaus with plenty of time to comment on his golf, especially his first-round 71. The round still bewildered him. He had hit every one of the tight, baked fairways, and he hit 17 greens. But he had failed to birdie a single par-5 hole, usually his strong suit, and he had missed putts of 3, 12, 12, 10, 9, 16, 4 and 16 feet. "As far as hitting shots is concerned, that was probably as fine a round of golf as I have played in the British Open," he said. "It was even better than my last-round 65 in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. But my putting has got to improve."
It had not improved during the third round, and on the final day it failed him again. Without it he had no hope of making up the three strokes he trailed Roberto. Nicklaus was paired for the last round with Clive Clark, who himself was only four shots off De Vicenzo's lead. They were in the next-to-last twosome, with Roberto and Gary Player behind them. After a night of rain the course was a far more gentle proposition than in the earlier rounds, but all the leaders were edgy at the start. Clark fired his approach to the 1st hole out of bounds. Player bogeyed the 1st after hitting a high, wild hook over the green. Roberto bogeyed the 2nd, hitting into a pot bunker in front of the green, and Jack bogeyed the 2nd by three-putting, missing once from 18 inches.
Then the afternoon settled down into Roberto's march to victory. Nicklaus crept to within two shots of the leader when he birdied the 7th and 8th, only to falter again by missing a 10-foot putt on the 9th hole. When Player three-putted the 10th green from 12 feet he was through, and he knew it. He just turned away in resigned pain when his putt did not drop. De Vicenzo then birdied the hole to increase his lead.
At 14 Nicklaus, shaking his head sadly, missed a 12-foot birdie try, but minutes later De Vicenzo did not miss. His drive was prodigiously long, his beautifully high three-iron shot landed in a hollow just short of the green and his pitch shot almost rolled into the cup.
Two holes later it was over. Nicklaus hit a delicate pitch over a bunker to within six feet of the cup at 16 and got his birdie 4. He was now only two shots back and the tight out-of-bounds markers on the 16th and 17th holes meant he had a chance. Using a driver off the tee, where Nicklaus had cautiously used a one-iron, De Vicenzo rolled his drive to within 15 feet of a low earth abutment that marks the out of bounds on the right side of 16. Then he hit a daring three-wood that soared high toward the right side of the green, landed just short and bounded slowly into the center of the putting surface, no more than 25 feet from the hole. Two putts gave Roberto his birdie, and he could coast home from there.
Nicklaus birdied the last hole for a strong 69, but De Vicenzo, walking through a wall of applause, finished par—par for a 70 that gave him his 278 to Jack's 280. "I thought a 69 would surely win today," said Nicklaus. "The way the pins were placed it was a tough course."
"I thought 70 would be good enough," said Roberto. He had played almost flawless golf. After his shaky start his mood and tempo seemed so relaxed that he might have been out on a casual Saturday afternoon giving a club member a playing lesson. "You big strong thing, you," said Nicklaus to Roberto after it was over. "Congratulations."
The day before, a man not prone to extravagant language, Gerald Micklem, long an official of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, had declared: "If Roberto wins, the lid will blow off. We love him." And now the lid was at least askew. Roberto's white teeth were flashing and his bald head was shining and he was kissing the trophy in a lavish Latin fashion.
In his brief speech at the presentation ceremony he explained that ever since Jose Jurado double-bogeyed the 71st hole and lost the 1931 British Open by a stroke to Tommy Armour, Argentine golfers had been trying hard to win it. "This year I meant it when I said that it would be my last, but now I come back again," he said. "I am very proud to take this cup home with me. Next year I return with the cup, maybe for some British boy to win."
No wonder the British love him.