From the Golf Journal Archives - The End of Roberto’s Long Quest

Dec 14, 2012

by Leonard Crawley

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1980 issue of Golf Journal.)

“Know ye not,” wrote St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians, “that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize.” This to my mind was a profound observation by a farseeing philosopher of his time. Now 2,000 years later, it fits nicely into the pattern of events in world golf today.

We golfers know exactly what it means in whatever category it happens to be our lot to occupy. Therefore one and all recognize the strain that competitive golf brings to the mind when played for a living, or for nothing but honor and glory.

British and American Open champions, and winners of the Masters, almost without exception make up a list of such formidable characters that one sometimes wonders how a golfing genius without this aggressive competitive spirit can ever reach the top.

A burning desire to win, and an unconquerable spirit masked by a gentlemanly character brought “Bobby” to immortality. But somehow Roberto de Vicenzo of the Argentine, Britain’s new Open champion, whose style and majesty, and whose deportment on the golf course has been the envy of all who have watched him, has lacked that infernal something to break through the golfing barrier.

Roberto is an artist whose superb technique and method has never been surpassed by Bobby himself, Snead, Vardon or James Braid. He will, I hope, one day hear someone sing Brahms’ “Vidmung” a song wholly satisfying to a desperate lover who has, at last, won the day:

“Thou art mine then at last love,
“The darkness is past love,
“The dawn is divine.”

Old men were seen speechless with tears streaming down their cheeks, young men were skipping like lambs and women were shouting with joy as Roberto won at the Royal Liverpool Club, Hoylake, England, with a score of 278, two strokes off the Open record. It hardly seemed possible that he had won at last. Second once, and five times third in the British Open, the first prize at 44 years of age seemed beyond his grasp.

He led by three strokes from the holder, Jack Nicklaus, at the end of the third round, and in the fourth he was drawn with Gary Player, of South Africa, himself a model of deportment, but among the fiercest and most successful competitors in the world today. Roberto had won 38 national opens but never one of the three titles that count most.

For years this bronzed giant has been the hero of golfing galleries and a hero of mine. Whenever I have watched him an agreeable shiver has run down my spine, at once recalling Samson. Roberto won by his tremendous skill, supported by rare courage and determination to break through before it was too late. For years he has been threatening in his hesitant English that “this is my last time.” Now he promises “I come back,” and I am sure his powers will remain for years to come.

Roberto began the last round two strokes ahead of Player, three ahead of Nicklaus and four ahead of Clive Clark and Bruce Devlin. Short of accidents and a break in the weather, the championship lay among these five, and the general opinion was that either Player or Nicklaus would win.

General opinion was wrong.

Both Nicklaus and Player began a little uncertainly, and Roberto got his par figures showing us at the third and fifth, where he saved his 4s, that he is armed to the teeth when in the mood. He reached the turn in par 36, but Nicklaus, playing in front of him, had gained a stroke. At the 10th, Roberto pitched close to the hole and made a 3. Player took three putts from close range, and Nicklaus, who at this point seemed the most dangerous, was now three behind Roberto. Player missed his 3 at the one-shot 11th, and Nicklaus, playing majestically, reeled off par figures. But Jack took 5 at the 14th when his tee shot was in rough. Roberto, with a delicate little pitch, got his birdie 4 there and was now 10 under par, four strokes ahead of Nicklaus. Player now was virtually out of it.

Nicklaus, with great courage, stormed the last four holes in 4, 4, 4, 3 to finish in 69. His 4 at the 16th, where he hit a delicate little pitch to the side of the hole showed a champion’s character. It left Roberto knowing exactly what he had to do. He dropped a shot at the 15th, but at the par 5 16th he took a direct line over the cop to the green, and with a three-wood from the fairway he bowed into it with all that hidden power which is so thrilling to behold. His ball finished in the middle of the green and here was another birdie.

Perhaps no one has ever made the dreaded 17th with its out-of-bounds so close to the hole, look so easy. He made his par 4 there and then hit an enormous drive down the 18th. After a second shot on target, his ovation from the packed stands began. He had three putts for the championship from a few feet, and all was soon over.

All week Nicklaus showed his immense stature. He played magnificently, but he wasn’t making the putts. It was interesting to me to see that with a very short take-back he was lifting his head a fraction earlier than he was when he won the United States Open at Baltusrol.

Player has never played more impressively in an Open in England, but he too was disappointed with his putting.

No praise can be too high for Clive Clark, who at 22, and in his second year as a professional, must have surpassed his wildest dreams.

In his last round he began 6, 5, which would have shattered the stoutest hearts of ordinary mortals. But he finished like a hero in 72 over one of the world’s greatest golf courses. Nor must we forget Tony Jacklin, whose last round of 70 brought him into fifth place with much honor.

The arrangements for the championship have never been better, and our thanks are due to Brig. Eric Brickman, the retiring Secretary of the Royal Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and all the loyal supporters of the Royal Liverpool Club who assisted him through the months of preparation.