Angel Cabrera, winner of golf’s Masters a fortnight ago, is surprised by all the golf talk in his Argentine hometown. “In Villa Allende it seems that everyone knows about golf, although they don’t play. At the barber’s shop, the barber will talk about golf, and with knowledge.”
Cabrera himself does not talk. He is not a man who believes in the power of words to change history. He has barely spoken since the day he folded the Masters champion’s fabled green jacket around his ample belly, but he agreed to answer a few of my questions by e-mail.
Along with some poking around in Argentina, that gave a sense of how he and his country are experiencing the triumph of a man who resembles an ageing garage mechanic. First, how did Cabrera – who once said he used cigarettes instead of sports psychologists – hold his nerve for the sudden-death playoff? “I was relaxed because I’m confident in my game,” he says. Was he still relaxed when his ball hit a pine tree during the playoff? “I felt I hit it well, and the truth is that the ball rebounded nicely off the tree on to the fairway. I knew that with two more strokes to play, I had many chances to win. I never lost confidence.”
Straight after the Masters Cabrera was asked what his win meant for Argentina. He replied, to the embarrassment of Masters’ officials, “I play for myself.” Now, having had two weeks to clean up his answers, he says: “I play for myself but I always think of my country, my province and my place of birth, Villa Allende. One of the things that golf costs me most is being far from my home and people.”
Cabrera’s intimates say this is not mere PR. He appears unusually attached to the town where he grew up poor, with his grandmother, estranged from his parents, and where he left elementary school to caddy at the local course. When I asked whether poverty had slowed his career, he replied to the contrary: “I went to the golf course out of economic necessity. After that came all the rest.” Susan Marples, who for years organised the town’s golf open, adds, “He still goes to the local club a lot. It is like part of his house.”
Lastly, how was Cabrera enjoying the green jacket? “I’m living every moment,” he e-mailed.
I’m sorry: that’s all I could get out of him. But what about Argentina? Recent foreign reports suggest the country is abandoning its traditional pursuits of football, barbecues and inflation and embracing golf instead. However, there is little sign of this locally. As evidence that Argentina remains impervious to golf, cynics like to cite the already legendary radio interview that the veteran journalist Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú conducted with Cabrera.
“What was it like to face Tiger Woods?” she asked. “I didn’t,” said Cabrera down the phone line. “There were 95 other players there.”
A flummoxed Ms Ruiz Guiñazú then dredged up the only other golfer most Argentines have heard of: Roberto “el Maestro” De Vicenzo, the Argentine who should have won the Masters in 1968 but forfeited it after signing an incorrect scorecard. “What a stupid I am,” he memorably lamented.
“What,” persisted Ms Ruiz Guiñazú, “was it like for De Vicenzo to face Woods?”
There was a painful pause on air. Cabrera was presumably wondering whether to mention that De Vicenzo is 86 years old, and Woods 33.
“De Vicenzo never played Woods,” he finally growled.
“What?” asked Ms Ruiz Guiñazú.
Cabrera repeated his point.
“Yes, I think they played,” she insisted.
“Yes, well, sorry, but,” sighed Cabrera. Then the line went dead.
Judging by Argentine media, most Argentines still care as little for golf as Ms Ruiz Guiñazú does. Cabrera’s lasting impact will be elsewhere: “The Duck” is the overweight Everyman, possibly the first sports champion ever to look older than the sitting US president. “I know there is a preoccupation in sport with the physical,” he told me. “But I prefer to spend the time training other things, such as technique.” Here at last is a hero for the age of obesity.