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Olympics 2016: Mario Gonzalez Was a Tremendous Talent Who Chose Family Over Fame

August 2, 2016

Mario Gonzalez can be in two places at once.

There he is, immortalized in bronze at the entrance to Gávea Golf & Country Club, Rio’s oldest track. He’s a young man, his arms extended in mid-swing.

And there he is, 50 feet away in the flesh, seated poolside in a patch of patio shaded by a mango tree. Gonzalez calls this his “office.” He spends most mornings here watching play, greeting those who pay their respects. They call him mestre, professor, padrinho. Master. Teacher. Godfather. A young male admirer approaches, kneels and kisses the 94-year-old’s hand.

If this is unusual, Gonzalez doesn’t betray surprise. “He’s a good boy and a good golfer,” he says, as if one follows the other.

Gonzalez is the most celebrated golfer in Brazil’s history. His playing career spanned four decades, from the ’30s to the ’70s. He dominated the Brazil Open, a popular stop for many top pros, and claimed seven titles in a nine-year span. After winning the Brazilian Amateur nine times, he turned pro—not to travel the world but to serve as head professional at Gávea.

A modest man, Gonzalez doesn’t often talk about his career highlights: playing Bobby Jones to a draw; making a run at the Open Championship at Muirfield; beating a U.S. Open champion in a match watched all over the world. “I don’t like interviews,” Gonzalez says. “I am too old. I get nervous. I forget things. When you’re 94, you get weak in the head.”

Gonzalez takes lunch inside. Etched in wood, his name marks the walls alongside more famous monikers: Snead, De Vicenzo, Casper. Here, among the memories of his triumphs, his mind is sharpest. Here, he recalls what time has taught him.

Home can hold you back. And home can lift you up.

It’s 1941 and Gonzalez is coming to America.

By 19, he had already conquered his own continent. The year before, he’d won the Argentine Amateur and the Argentine Open in back-to-back weeks.

The talented, sweet-swinging Brazilian was an unlikely ambassador for golf. The game was more established in neighboring Argentina, where British railroad engineers carved out courses to preserve their pastime. Brazil, by contrast, was poor, but Gonzalez had one of the country’s only teachers in his corner.

His father, José Maria, was a Spaniard who built Brazil’s second course, in the south of Brazil, where Mario was born in 1922. He later became head professional at São Paulo Golf Club, the country’s oldest course. As a child, Gonzalez would eavesdrop on the lessons his father gave, inheriting a treasure chest of swing wisdom. He grew into a wiry young man with surprising length. Leveraging every ounce of his 150 pounds, Gonzalez had an athletic, artistic motion that launched drives 275 yards. “My father’s swing was like a ballet,” Gonzalez’s son Jaime says.

News of Gonzalez’s triumphs in Argentina spread throughout the continent. His fans called him the “South American Bobby Jones.” After Gonzalez won the 1940 Brazilian Amateur, Brazil’s president hailed him for bringing honor to his country and sponsored Gonzalez on a four-month U.S. tour in 1941. The ambitious amateur was eager to find out how he compared to the world’s top talent. “I want to learn and keep progressing,” Gonzalez told a local paper. “I want to…compete against the American players.”

Gonzalez sailed to the United States. Although he missed the cut at the 1941 U.S. Open, at Colonial, he played well in the U.S. Amateur and tied for sixth at the PGA Tour’s Chicago Open.

Then came an exhibition against the great Jones himself. In 1941, he wasn’t the same player who had won the Grand Slam in 1930, but Jones kept his game sharp and played the Masters each year. After 18 holes at East Lake, the golf icon edged Gonzalez 1-up—or so it seemed. Ever the sportsman, Jones corrected a scoring mistake: He’d actually conceded a hole that had been erroneously recorded in his favor.

The 19-year-old amateur had played Bobby Jones to a draw.

“He’s a great young player,” Jones said. “I’d bet on him to beat any North American amateur his age.” Then he upped the ante. “In fact, he could beat any North American amateur.”

It’s 1948 and Gonzalez is proving Jones right.

Now 26, he had won eight of the previous 10 Brazilian Amateur titles and was ready to test his game in Europe. In the United Kingdom, Gonzalez won the Challenge Cup at Royal St. George’s and went deep into the British Amateur. Next came the Open Championship at Muirfield, a chance to gain fame outside South America. After two solid rounds, he fired a 70 on a cold, rainy Saturday—the low round of the day. He vaulted onto the first page of the leaderboard, but a final-round 75 dropped him to 11th. Although he had tied for low amateur, immortality eluded him.

“When he didn’t win, I was surprised,” five-time Open champion Peter Thomson wrote in his memoir. Of course, the often bitter weather in Scotland is a far cry from Brazil’s temperate climes. “The poor guy told me he was shivering the whole time because he wasn’t accustomed to the cold.”

Soon after, Gonzalez had a wedding to attend in Madrid—his own. The previous year, after winning the Madrid Amateur, he entered the Spanish Open, at Real Club de la Puerta de Hierro. The club manager was so impressed by Gonzalez’s play that he brought his family, including his 18-year-old daughter Pilar, to watch the young Brazilian compete. Gonzalez won by five shots, then asked Pilar out to the movies. “Wait for me,” he told her before leaving Spain. “I will be back to marry you.”

He kept his word. One year later, their guests raised golf clubs as the newlyweds walked down the aisle.

Now he had a decision to make: remain an amateur, or turn pro. Amateurs couldn’t accept prize money. (His “pay” for winning an exhibition at North Berwick, in Scotland, in 1948 was a one-year pass to the club’s swimming pool.) Yet turning pro hardly assured riches. Henry Cotton cleared £150 for winning that year’s British Open. And pros were seen as second-class citizens, one rung above caddies, unlike gentlemen amateurs who played for pride and prestige.

Gonzalez harbored no such prejudices. Soon after his impressive Open Championship performance at Muirfield, he was invited to dinner in the clubhouse. He arrived with a young Argentine pro named Roberto De Vicenzo. As an amateur, Gonzalez was welcome to dine, he was told. De Vicenzo—who’d tied for third at Muirfield—was not. “Then I prefer to have dinner with my friends,” Gonzalez said, and both men left.

But he needed money: Not long after their wedding in 1948, Pilar was pregnant. When his old friend Jones wrote to invite him to play in the 1949 Masters, Gonzalez had to turn him down. The trip would cost too much. Instead, Gonzalez turned pro later that year, becoming the head professional at Gávea.

He thought he would stay for a year or two. He never left.

It’s 1961 and Gonzalez is about to get his 15 minutes of fame.

Gávea’s members at that time were mostly British and American expats—men of refined taste. Everything had to be just so. As the club’s head pro, Gonzalez rarely strayed far from home.

Sure, there were a few sojourns to greener fairways. In 1953, he finished 21st at a Tour event at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in Niles, Illinois. (Pilar innocently asked Ben Hogan, “Do you play golf, too?”) But Gonzalez was approaching 40, and his best days were seemingly behind him. He was content to give lessons and run the club.

Then Shell Oil came calling.

Shell was sponsoring a new series of televised matches at exotic courses around the world. Famous American golfers would play top foreign pros. Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf kicked off its decades-long run in 1961, at Gávea, and featured the club’s head pro in the inaugural match.

“I’m very happy that you selected Gávea,” Gonzalez told host Gene Sarazen on the day of filming. “But why did you have to bring Billy Casper?”

No one came tougher than Casper. At 30, he was in his prime, having already collected 13 Tour titles, including the 1959 U.S. Open. He knew the course (winning the Brazil Open there in 1958 and ’59) and was a masterful putter.

Never great on the greens, Gonzalez’s stroke had grown shakier with time. To win the stroke-play match in front of an adoring local gallery, Gonzalez decided, he’d have to be bold. On the narrow first hole, he ripped a drive 270 yards and made birdie, to go up a stroke.

“Boy!” Sarazen said. “This match could be just as hot as this blazing Brazilian sun!”

Gonzalez picked up another stroke on the second hole. As the course climbed Pedra da Gávea Mountain (“This first nine would even be tough on a goat!” said Sarazen), Casper clawed back, while the local hero struggled on the sun-baked greens. “We’ve all felt that if [Gonzalez’s] putting were up to the rest of his game, he’d be a contender in any championship,” Sarazen said.

Still, Gonzalez led by two when he hooked his second shot on the par-5 13th. With Casper looking at a simple chip-and-putt birdie, Gonzalez faced a tricky shot: bare lie, over a trap, onto a red-hot green. Bogey seemed certain.

And there was a purse of more than $3,000 on the line. This match would be broadcast—in Technicolor!—to millions the world over. “This is no routine golf game for Mario,” Sarazen told viewers. “This is the most important man-to-man golf match he’s ever played.”

Gonzalez knew every inch of Gávea. He was sure that hitting a silver-dollar-size spot on the front edge of the green would funnel the ball to the hole. He took a wedge and hit a low cut that barely carried the bunker, struck the tiny target and rolled to within a foot of the pin. Birdie. It was a decisive blow.

On 18, Gonzalez tapped in for his 68, to Casper’s 71. The ecstatic crowd stormed the green and hoisted their beloved Gonzalez onto their shoulders.

On most mornings, Gonzalez wakes up and returns home.

A car collects him at his apartment in Leblon—an affluent town near the neighborhood of Ipanema—and takes him to Gávea.

On the ride, he notices the many changes. Tourism has transformed the once-isolated stretch of beach: There are now luxury hotels, multilane roads, upscale shopping centers. With Rio racing to upgrade its infrastructure for the Games, the din of construction (not to mention political and economic turmoil) has reached a cacophonous pitch.

“Brazil is becoming a great country, a rich country,” Gonzalez says. “It’s always good [at Gávea]. Outside, it’s a bloody mess.”

After the Casper match, Gonzalez wasn’t done winning. In 1969, he claimed his eighth and final Brazil Open title, outplaying his old friend De Vicenzo. “If he had played more on the PGA Tour,” De Vicenzo says today, “I am sure he would be in the Hall of Fame.”

Gary Player, a two-time Brazil Open champion who considers Mario a friend, agrees that Gonzalez left fame and fortune on the table. “No doubt, he could have won several times on the PGA Tour, as well as a major, if he had lived full time in the U.S.,” Player says. “But he made golf relevant [in Brazil] by competing around the world and in majors.”

Yes, Gonzalez concedes, he could have traveled more to make an international name for himself. But he loved his job, his club, his city, the rhythms of his life. The locals have an expression for things that seem inexplicable: É o jeitinho brasileiro. It’s the Brazilian way. “No regrets,” he says. “I consider myself a fully accomplished person. I was proud then, and I’m proud today.”

And he’s proud of his son, Jaime, who won four Brazilian Amateur championships and in 1980 became the first Brazilian to earn a PGA Tour card. Jaime later taught Alexandre Rocha, who made the Tour in 2010, just the second Brazilian to do so. “There was a handing down in generations,” Rocha said in 2013. “I’m not from the same family, but I’m very fortunate to be involved with the Gonzalez family.”

Gonzalez stopped playing in 2005, at 82, and gave up teaching when it became too difficult to stand without a cane. Yet the club remains a part of him. As Jaime explains, “My mother says Mario is only alive today because of his love for golf.”

Age took his strength, but not his sense of humor. Asked if the bronze statue makes him proud, he replies, “It’s good, but usually they wait until you’ve died. It’s better for the birds. They’re always leaving something on my head.” How’s the resemblance? “The nose is too big. It looks more like Jaime.”

He spends most days at Gávea, but on this March morning, Gonzalez is at a test event at the Olympic course. When the Games end, it will become Brazil’s first 18-hole public course.

As local Olympic hopefuls prepare to tee off, Gonzalez stands behind the first tee. He smiles and says, “I would shoot anything just to be out there again.”

If his aching legs allow, Gonzalez will return to watch the real thing: the game’s best competing for gold in his homeland.

He was always reluctant to travel the world. Now the world will come to him.

Additional research by GOLF’s Josh Sens, USGA historian Victoria Student and Gávea member Marcelo Stallone.