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Farewell to a legend of the game

And so, the game said farewell to one of the greats, as Roberto De Vicenzo passed away at the age of 94 last week.

Like many, my knowledge of the man didn’t extend too far beyond his extraordinary scorecard gaffe at the 1968 Masters, and his now-immortal words following the blunder: “What a stupid I am.”

But, having spent a fair bit of time learning more about the man these past few days, I’ve come to the resounding conclusion that remembering him simply by his signing away a green jacket (honestly, can you think of another situation in life where signing something with a pencil can be so binding?) does a profound disservice to one of the finest individuals to have graced our game.

Masters Sunday 1968 was the Argentinian’s 45th birthday, and he made an explosive start, holing out with a 9-iron for an eagle two at the first hole. With his popularity already at meteoric highs, an elated crowd began to sing “Happy Birthday” in unison.

Raucous delirium ensued, as De Vicenzo stormed to a 31 on the front nine. He kept up the momentum on the back nine too, with birdies at 12 and 15, and seemed to have the Masters under his thumb after a Jack Nicklaus ’86-esque birdie at 17.

But then it all went wrong. He pulled his 4-iron approach to the final hole, and despite a decent recovery chip, missed the six-foot par save.

The crowd continued to sing happy birthday to him, but he wondered off afterwards somewhat aggrieved, realising a Monday playoff with co-leader Bob Goalby was now inevitable.

Or was it?

Tommy Aaron had somehow not noticed his playing partner’s three at 17, scribing a four instead. An absent-minded De Vincenzo signed on the dotted line for what he thought would be one of the great final-round 65s of all time at Augusta.

Yet, owing to Aaron’s glitch, rules official Hord Hadin had no choice but to chalk it up as a 66, meaning the birthday boy missed out by one.

A stupid he was indeed. But it wasn’t the only legendary quote to emerge from that incredible, agonising day.

“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.”

Another gem: "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!"

Then my other personal favourite: “When Bob Goalby and I meet in heaven, we are going to end this duel left unfinished on Earth.”

But perhaps the one which is the greatest measure of the man was this during his latter years: “I’ve gotten more out of signing the card wrong than if I had signed it correctly.

“Every now and then, I will drop a tear, but I’ve moved on. I got to see the world through golf. No one should feel sorry for me.”

And why would you. One look at his career shows just how much he achieved – more than enough to dwarf the disappointment of Augusta ’68. He picked up the first of his 231 professional victories at the 1942 Litoral Open in his homeland, and the last in 1980 at the inaugural US Senior Open.

In total, he won 48 national championships, the pick of which was the 1967 Open at Hoylake, where he held of a charging Nicklaus by two strokes – making him the oldest champion (at 44) since Old Tom Morris.

He tasted triumph in 17 different countries, and was also a member of the winning Argentinian team at the first ever World Cup of golf in 1953.

"I won so many tournaments, even I can't believe it," the endearing De Vicenzo once said without a trace of hubris. "How was it possible to have done all that?" It didn’t come easy. One of seven children to a Buenos Aires house painter, he quickly learned the meaning of hard work. Hitting 400 balls a day was standard procedure, each of which incorporated the same meticulous pre-shot routine.

He travelled more than 15 million miles in his career to various golf tournaments around the world too. And he visibly, appreciably, enjoyed every second of it, even in his twilight years.

"My life is good," he said in one of his final interviews earlier this year. "I live 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."

Indeed there does. But every obituary you read paints quite a picture of De Vicenzo, whose appeal was so enduring. Unfailingly genial. Goodness all the way through. Never in a bad mood. A true gentleman until the end.

It’s all there and more, and it goes far beyond the usual platitudes, lip-service and respects people offer up. What we had was a quite exceptional man, and a true champion of the game.

Even for those like me who never saw him play, his legend will not quickly be forgotten. May you rest in peace sir, and enjoy your rematch with Goalby – as you did everything else in life.

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