Museum Moment: The First U.S. Senior Open Champion

Jul 29, 2010

By Robert Alvarez

This week the golf world turns its eyes to the Pacific Northwest, home of Sahalee Country Club and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open Championship. Located near Seattle, the 400-acre, 27-hole complex is perched on a plateau east of Lake Sammamish. Sahalee means “high heavenly ground” in the native Chinookan language.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Senior Open. The Senior Open was established to give professionals and amateurs 55 years and older (now 50) a chance to compete for a national championship. Today, the championship is a showcase for some of the most talented and seasoned players in the world, many of whom still hold their own against younger competition, as best illustrated by the outstanding performances of Greg Norman and Tom Watson in the 2008 and 2009 British Open Championships, respectively.

The first U.S. Senior Open Championship was held in late June of 1980 at Winged Foot Golf Club’s East Course, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. The USGA received 631 applications, including ones from former U.S. Open champions Lew Worsham, Julius Boros, Ed Furgol, Jack Fleck and Tommy Bolt. The first Senior Open was for players 55 and older; the age minimum was lowered to 50 for the 1981 championship and has been in place ever since.

Argentina native Roberto De Vicenzo, then 57, won the first championship, posting a one-over-par 285, four shots clear of William Campbell, then a vice president (and future president) of the USGA, who also was the 1964 U.S. Amateur champion and the 1979 USGA Senior Amateur champion.
De Vicenzo, one of the great international players of the era, came from humble beginnings. Born in 1923, he learned the game as a caddie’s assistant and turned professional at age 15. He won his first of nine Argentine Opens six years later, and by the time he retired from competitive golf, he had claimed more than 100 international victories, including six on the PGA Tour, and the 1967 British Open Championship.

De Vicenzo sported a graceful swing, yet was capable of hitting the ball immense distances. He was also known to follow a strict practice regimen, hitting more than 400 balls per day, at a very slow pace, taking time to visualize each shot.

While De Vicenzo possesses one of the more impressive resumes in the game’s history, he is perhaps best known for one of the more unfortunate moments to take place in a major championship. In the 1968 Masters Tournament, De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard that had him down for a par rather than the birdie he actually made on the par four 17th hole at Augusta National Golf Club. De Vicenzo was forced to accept the higher score, meaning that he lost by one stroke to Bob Goalby, instead of playing off with Goalby the next day for a chance at winning his second major championship. Following this critical mistake, De Vincenzo uttered one of the most famous golf quotes of all time: “What a stupid I am.”

De Vicenzo handled the incident with such grace that he was recognized by the USGA in 1970 with its highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, given annually for distinguished sportsmanship in golf. The March 1970 issue of Golf Journal chronicled the event:

“Roberto De Vicenzo sat at lunch in New York one raw, cold day in January, laughing and joking, which is his normal behavior. Suddenly he became serious, and looking up he commented on the reason for his being in New York instead of home in Buenos Aires where the weather was warm and his swimming pool beckoned.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘to win a tournament you need just a hot week. To win an award like this you need years.’”

Sportsmanship is an elusive quality to define. To the USGA it means these things:

• Fair play.
• Self control and perhaps self denial.
• Generosity of spirit toward an opponent or toward the game as a whole.
• Manner of playing or behaving so as to show respect for the game and the people in it.
• Unselfishness.

Even DeVicenzo’s actions after being notified that he had been named recipient of the award showed his acute respect for the game. Without hesitation DeVicenzo said he would come to New York for the presentation. He arrived on a Friday and returned home the following Monday.

The flight from Buenos Aires covered some 5,300 miles and took approximately 12 hours. Talking about that flight reminded him of his first trip to New York in 1947.

‘It took three days to get there,’ DeVicenzo said as he reeled off a list of Latin American cities where the plane stopped. This was at the beginning of his international career, and today he is regarded as the best-liked player on the international circuit.

Standing before the delegates to the Annual Meeting, DeVicenzo accepted the bronze plaque bearing the likeness of Jones and said, ‘Thank you very much.’

‘I’m nervous,’ he went on with a little twitter. Then as a salvo from photographers’ flash guns subsided, he quipped, ‘I’m very nervous.’

‘Well, I come here from Buenos Aires to accept this wonderful, the Bob Jones Award. I played all over the world – except Russia and China! I play golf, make some money, make some friends. Today… I don’t know. I have this wonderful thing in my hands. It means more than you think – for my family, my friends, my people in South America. I want to tell the United States Golf Association ‘Thank you very much.’”

Ten years later, De Vicenzo capped off a wonderful career with his victory at the inaugural U.S. Senior Open Championship. De Vicenzo thanked the USGA by donating the Spalding Top-Flite sand wedge and Ben Hogan Apex golf ball that he used during the championship to the organization in 1984. These items are currently on display in the USGA Museum.

Robert Alvarez is the collection manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.

De Vicenzo thanked the USGA by donating the Spalding Top-Flite sand wedge and Ben Hogan Apex golf ball that he used during the championship to the organization in 1984. (USGA Museum)