Ugly Duckling: Angel Cabrera, the greatest Argentine golfer in history, joins the Hall of Infamy

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July 11, 2021 6:00 AM

For a country like Argentina, Angel Cabrera’s success wasn’t about the money he made, or about his golfing abilities, but rather about him being a beacon for what’s possible.

Major Winner Angel Cabrera being taken into custody after being extradited from Brazil last month.Major Winner Angel Cabrera being taken into custody after being extradited from Brazil last month.

They called him ‘El Pato’: a Spanish nom de guerre that literally translates into ‘The Duck’—a reference to Angel Cabrera’s big feet and waddling gait. It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment; certainly not in today’s hyper-athletic milieu that professional golf thrives in; but Cabrera didn’t mind. The Argentinian was, by any yardstick you care to apply, an outlier in the modern game, and by implication, a rare and shining tale of human endeavour triumphing against all odds, and in a game that’s never been considered inclusive.

Cabrera’s fairy tale has all the elements: a young lad growing up in dire poverty—not even with the means to acquire an education, and who, as a ten-year-old walked in barefoot into a golf club to ask for a job as a caddy just so he could put food on the table for his family. From there, to winning the 2007 US Open with his homemade golf swing, the chain-smoking Cabrera became one of the most celebrated golfers in the world.

Cabrera didn’t fit the archetype of a professional athlete, but rather a talented everyman, who average joes, most of all amateur club golfers, could identify with. Cabrera’s success at the highest pinnacle of the sport, that included donning the Green Jacket at the Masters Tournament in 2009, and countless wins across Asia and Europe, was a bit like your next door neighbour cocking a snook at the elites. His Masters win in particular was regarded as divine justice for fellow countryman Robert de Vicenzo’s ridiculously tragic loss at The 1968 Masters: Vicenzo was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard that would have got him into a playoff. No wonder then, as far as popularity went, Cabrera was, by far, the most-loved professional athlete (who was not a footballer) in South America.

The reason I didn’t write about Cabrera’s run-in with the law in January this year is because it involved an accusation and a domestic dispute. In 2016, his partner, Cecilia Torres Mana, filed charges of domestic violence against Cabrera; things got complicated after the golfer travelled to Brazil in August 2020 in contravention of the law and failed to appear at hearings for the case. Things went further south when, post an extradition request by Argentina, he was arrested in Brazil in January this year. Cabrera who has been in custody since then and last week, was convicted to two years in prison for assault. The internet was flooded with images of Cabrera wearing his President’s Cup jacket to the hearing. Crucially, the conviction hinged on additional charges levied by two more women—an ex-wife and ex-partner—besides Mana. The findings of the court confirm Cabrera’s guilt, and worse, suggest that he’s a serial offender.

Now I’m going to resist passing moral judgement here. Not my place to do so. What I do feel saddened by is about the losses we sustain. For a country like Argentina, Cabrera’s success wasn’t about the money he made, or about his golfing abilities, but rather about him being a beacon for what’s possible. Someone who demonstrated that it was entirely possible to rise above the seemingly impossible realities that have become people’s normalised day-to-day realities. And then go on to achieve what you wouldn’t even dream of. He was a role model for kids, not just those who harbour dreams of professional golf, but any sport.

What message does this send out to those kids. That misogyny, and violence against women is par for the course? I hope not. I hope this sordid saga will not cast a long shadow on what Cabrera achieved on the golf course. If anything, his golf career, humble beginnings aside, is a testament to a player harnessing his natural abilities, and more importantly believing in those. Of staying true to himself, his virtues, and unavoidably, his vices. Cabrera was a rare dinosaur who still played the way this game was played before the bomb-and-gouge madness took over pro golf. His character flaws, as manifested in his personal life do not diminish that. They do, however, leave an indelible taint on his legacy.

There’s this common belief, one that I certainly subscribe to, that golf often offers a measure of a player that goes beyond his or her skills at the game. Universal values of honesty, integrity, sensitivity to others, etiquette, and fairness are an essential part of playing the game. I would go even further to add, that just playing golf can often bring out the best in people.

On the flip side, I suppose it is somewhat unfair to expect athletes to understand the wider ramifications that their lives have on society, and to live in a manner that takes responsibility for that. But that’s what one would have hoped for from Cabrera. Because that’s what truly differentiates the truly larger-than-life icons of any sport.

When I think of Cabrera, I remember the extraordinary composure he displayed while losing a close-fought playoff to Adam Scott at the 2013 Masters. Cabrera hugged Scott after the win and even praised the Australian’s game at the post-match press conference. To handle that kind of crushing loss, and deal with it with such dignity is remarkable. I still find it hard to reconcile that image with that of a man who would assault his partners. I’m certainly not writing him off; maybe Cabrera will see the error of his ways, spend his incarceration in thinking about and atoning for his misdemeanours, and maybe, just maybe, come out, and redeem himself. Maybe even play the Senior Tour. That’s the Angel Cabrera story I’d like to read. That’s the end it deserves.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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