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Fernandez gives golf a good name

The Champions Tour's latest winner proves that nice guys don't finish last.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

LUTZ -- The glow of victory still envelops him, the satisfaction of performing at the highest level having been experienced once again.

Vicente Fernandez has won golf tournaments around the world, but few have meant as much as the title he claimed Sunday at the ACE Group Classic in Naples -- given the spate of family tragedy and economic distress he has endured in recent times.

But if anything could bring him down from such a high, it was the cold reality of Tuesday morning: a round of golf with local media members.

Yep, there was the Champions Tour's latest winner at the TPC of Tampa Bay, playing a prearranged practice round with a couple of media hacks as part of another new tour initiative aimed at bringing out the bright side of the tour players.

They could have saved the sod.

While us reporter types were tearing up the sacred ground, site of this week's Verizon Classic, Fernandez went about his business getting ready for the tournament, making the game appear easy and proving again that nice guys do not finish last. You could not make him mad if you stepped on his ball in a bunker.

Fernandez, 56, is a well-respected player from Argentina who came through with a popular victory after a year of sadness.

"I have to take my hat off to Chino," said Tom Watson, using Fernandez's nickname, after he finished second to him in Naples. "Not only is he one of the nicest gentlemen that we have out here, but he's gone through a whole lot of tragedy not only from a familial standpoint, but from a financial standpoint. He's had a double-whammy, but you'd never know it by the man."

Last year, Fernandez lost his mother, aunt, brother-in-law and best friend, who also was his longtime swing coach. In addition, his longtime caddie, Brian Deasy, was diagnosed with cancer and missed the second half of the season. Deasy is expected to return this spring.

Fernandez also suffered financial setbacks due to economic turmoil in Argentina, where the value of the peso dropped to one-third of its value against the U.S. dollar. In order to help stop the slide, banks froze withdrawals.

"I hardly could help my family, myself, because we couldn't get our money from the bank," Fernandez said. "We were allowed only $600 per month."

Things have gotten better, Fernandez said, but the country is still suffering, with some 50 percent of the population making less than the poverty level, and 30 percent unemployed.

Fernandez has won nearly 100 tournaments, most in South America. He competed mostly on the PGA European Tour, where he won five times, including the 1992 Murphy's English Open at the Belfry, site of last year's Ryder Cup. At 46, he was the oldest winner on the European Tour in 10 years.

He got his start as a caddie at 9. One of eight siblings, he came from a poor family that moved to Buenos Aires after his father was injured and could no longer work on the family ranch. Fernandez played his first tournament as a pro at 15.

"Back around the time I started, professionalism (in golf) used to be a bad word," Fernandez said. "I remember when I first went to Britain, professionals were not allowed in the clubhouse. And it was like this in Argentina. Soon after I started, times started to change."

Like any Argentine golfer, Fernandez idolized Roberto De Vicenzo, winner of the 1967 British Open who posted 283 wins around the world. For all his success, De Vicenzo, now 79, is perhaps remembered more for signing an incorrect scorecard that cost him the 1968 Masters. "I cried," Fernandez said.

De Vicenzo played an important role in formation of the tour Fernandez plays today. In 1979, De Vicenzo and partner Julius Boros won a six-hole playoff over Tommy Bolt and Art Wall in the Legends of Golf. The nationally televised event was so well-received that a year later, the Senior PGA Tour was launched. De Vicenzo also helped put golf on the map in Argentina, a country that has barely 200 golf courses. In Buenos Aires, a metropolitan area that rivals New York in population, there are just 60 courses.

But that didn't keep Fernandez from excelling. He played in 21 British Opens and qualified for the PGA Tour in 1977, but went back to Europe two years later.

When Fernandez returned to the United States as a 50-year-old in 1996 to try the senior tour, he had no status, so he had to qualify on Mondays. He made it into a tournament in Minnesota and went on to win, becoming just the fifth Monday qualifier to win a tournament. It was his eighth senior event, and his wife, Esther, and sons Gustavo and Norberto were there to witness it.

"They didn't need to water the grass there," Fernandez said. "They were crying from the 16th hole in."

Fernandez remains a popular figure at home along with prominent golfers Eduardo Romero and Angel Cabrera.

But soccer is king in Argentina. Fernandez said he watched the Super Bowl, but doesn't much understand the game. "You use your hands, but call it football," he said. "What we call football (soccer), you use your feet."

Fernandez does know, however, that the Bucs won the Super Bowl and he is familiar with one of their most important players, kicker Martin Gramatica, who is from Argentina. "People couldn't believe he was giving up our football for yours," Fernandez said.

Champions Tour players are excellent golfers, regardless of age. Fernandez is proof. He finished fifth recently at the Argentine Open -- a tournament he won seven times -- against players half his age.

And it was all there to see on Tuesday, as he effortlessly blasted drives 270 yards while mapping out the TPC course with caddie Robert Dean.

No wonder the Champions Tour wants to promote him. He is a great golfer and truly a good guy. He also knows a thing or two about reporters.

"I used to write a newspaper column," he said. "When I played on the European Tour, for 16 years I wrote a weekly column for a Spanish-language paper back home."

A writer? That explains it.

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