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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 caf�s 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.