Friday, May 27, 2011

Rags to riches journey of US Open champion

From barefoot caddie to US Open winner, Cabrera proves that dreams can come true

When British immigrants built Argentina’s railways at the end of the 19th century, it led to the construction of a golf course near almost every station. Among them was the famous Jockey Club, just outside Buenos Aires. In 2001, it hosted the Open de Argentina, the only time it has been sanctioned by the European Tour. Its winner was Angel Cabrera.

It was the first of four European Tour titles for the beefy Argentine. His second was the 2002 Benson & Hedges International Open at the Belfry, his third the 2005 BMW Championship at Wentworth, and his fourth that momentous US Open at Oakmont last week. What price a fifth at Carnoustie next month? As the big-hitter’s playing partners often complain, you wouldn’t put it past him.

The 37-year-old is only the second Argentine to win a major title, the first in 40 years, but it was at Carnoustie in 1999 that the tough nut with a cracking drive first demonstrated his taste for adversity. On the course where countryman Jose Durado was runner-up in 1931, Cabrera tied for fourth, one stroke shy of the playoff, despite knee-high rough, finger-like fairways and weather that had the rest of the field up in arms.

Unusually for a man who is as long off the tee as he is twitchy on the greens, Cabrera likes it when the heat is on. He has enjoyed a top10 finish in seven majors, and survived the cut in eight consecutive US Opens. In last year’s Open at Royal Liver-pool, where Roberto De Vicenzo won in 1967, he was seventh.

In Cordoba the other day Cabrera confirmed his ambition. “After the feelings I felt on Sunday, I want more. I feel an obligation to continue growing and winning, if possible, more majors. I enjoy difficult courses. I have an advantage because I am not a good putter. On less complicated courses, players are able to achieve incredible scores, which you cannot achieve if you are bad at putting.”

His theory is an indictment of the brutal set-ups that often fail to separate the great players from the very good ones. Cabrera was way down the stats for putting and driving accuracy last week, but was second in distance off the tee, on one occasion crushing his ball 397 yards down the par-five 12th.

On a course where tight landing areas and lightning-fast greens were supposed to reward the conservative plodder, he bludgeoned his way around, scrambling from so far down the side of the fairways that being in the semi-rough didn’t matter. It earned him two of only eight sub-par rounds, and a five-over total, one better than Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods. Michael Campbell, Cabrera’s partner in the 2005 Presidents Cup, said: “The guy’s a bull. He might be the strongest man in golf. There’s no rough he can’t muscle the ball out of. That’s a tremendous advantage around a course like this.”

Brought up in Villa Allende, a town of some 35,000 people at the foot of the Sierra Chicas mountains, Cabrera lived with his grandmother from the age of two. He dropped out of elementary school, didn’t learn to read until he was older, and at the age of 10, turned up in his bare feet to caddie at Cordoba Golf Club. It was only when sponsors rented him a more comfortable home that he learnt how to work basic household appliances.

He was also burdened last week by his reputation for choking. Last year’s Open and this year’s BMW Championship are the most recent examples of final-round frailties that have cost him dear. The putter, they say, fuels doubt and frustration in a man whose temper has let him down in the past. “Watch out for him now,” says his caddie, Eddie Gardino. “This will give him a lot of confidence, which is all he ever needed.”

Cabrera, winner of 11 other titles, all of them in South America, is entering a brave new world. When he returns to Europe, possibly not until next month’s Barclays Scottish Open, he will find that everybody wants a piece of him. “I don’t consider myself a star, but surely I will be noticed a little bit more,” he says. “I have been playing in Europe for 11 seasons. I won twice in England, but now I have won a major. I am no longer a regular player. There are great players who have never won a major.”

Fame will not sit easily on those broad shoulders. The Duck, as he is known on account of his waddling walk, is a private man proud of his origins who prefers to speak in his native tongue. That he has neglected to improve his English is said to reflect either the impatience that sometimes affects his golf, or a reluctance to play the media game. Unlike Campbell, the 2005 US Open champion, he will not be appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman. “He speaks English better than he lets on, and I wish he would always speak it so fans could get to know him,” says the New Zea-lander. “But he’s not very confident with it in public settings.”

Cabrera finds himself at a crossroads: free of the pressure to prove himself, but weighed down by expectation and celebrity. Who knows where he will go from here, and how he will deal with it? While the Yankee dollar will appeal, he has struggled there before, lost without the familiar faces of the European Tour. He likes to rely only on what and who he knows. The shorter his answers, the less scope there is for error. His dietary requirements are Argentine steak, Fernet Blanca and eight cigarettes per round. His practice is limited, and with no formal tuition, he trusts instinct more than mechanics. He has no coach, no psychologist, just his caddie, and his manager, Manuel Tagle, a lifelong friend whose father was president at Cordoba Golf Club when Cabrera was growing up.

He is his own man, and in Cordoba last week, he was among his own people. On Wednesday, 150 caddies threw a party in his honour. The day before, draped in the national flag and joined by his two sons, he was escorted from the airport by a motorcade of more than 100 vehicles. Schools, shops and restaurants closed to mark the occasion. “I hope my triumph serves as a motivation for golf in Argentina,” he said. “I want the players to know they can win, that they have a chance. It was a triumph for Argentine golf.”

Since the European Tour began in 1972, nine Argentine players have won a combined total of 25 titles. Eduardo Romero has triumphed in eight, Cabrera and Vicente Fernandez in four each. Only 12 nations have produced more winners.

In Argentina, almost all the courses are private, leaving little opportunity for beginners. And of those who do gain access, usually by becoming a caddie, even the best are hard pushed to fulfil their ambitions. The promised land is a long way from home, where families tend to be close, and finances tight. The language barrier does nothing to alleviate loneliness. Down the years, Cabrera has had Romero, his Cordoba clubmate, to thank for emotional and financial support.

Slowly, opportunity is increasing. The Argentine Golf Association has acquired public facilities in Buenos Aires, and more clubs are opening their doors, if only for economic reasons.

Cabrera is Latin America’s Tiger Woods, an inspiration to the disenfranchised. While he hasn’t won nearly so many tournaments as De Vicenzo, he can be more influential. “The difference is many more saw it on television,” says De Vicenzo, now 84. “Millions saw Cabrera win.”

Among them was Andres Romero, in a Buenos Aires departure lounge. The 26-year-old, who partnered Cabrera at the World Cup, has been inspired at this week’s BMW International Open in Munich, where he was three off the lead at the halfway stage. “It gave me gooseflesh knowing that what he was about to achieve would never be forgotten. I was so happy I had to hold back the tears. It has lifted all Argentine golfers. His win changes things for all of us.”

Cabrera: from rags to riches

The US Open was the 37-year-old Argentine’s fi rst American win

He has won three times on the European Tour — the 2001 Open de Argentina (a European Tour event for that year only), 2002 B&H International Open, 2005 PGA Championship

He is known as The Duck because of the way he walks

Cabrera was born into poverty in Cordoba, Argentina. He worked as a caddie at the home club of Eduardo Romero who became his mentor and paid for his trips to qualifying school

His first three visits were unsuccessful, but in 1995, right, he qualified for the European Tour

He is the second golfer from Argentina to win a major. Roberto de Vicenzo triumphed in The Open at Hoylake in 1967

His caddie Eddie Gardino took part in the Golf Channel’s Big Break series

During this year’s PGA Championship at Wentworth, he topped a drive 50 yards



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