As the 2016 Rio Summer Games approached and golf was designated an Olympic sport for the first time since 1904, the man known as the father of the game in Brazil was celebrated anew.
Brazil had won five World Cup soccer championships and produced international road racing and tennis champions, but golf had largely remained a niche sport in the country, reserved for wealthy businessmen and ex-patriots.
But when the Reserva Marapendi Golf Course was built for the Olympics in western Rio, later to be converted into a public course in the hope that it could propel Brazilian golf toward a bright future, the exploits of Mario Gonzalez, who died Monday in Rio at 96, were remembered and retold.
Gonzalez won the Brazil Open eight times and was in contention for the British Open championship in 1948 while an amateur. In 1941, at 19, he had taken on Bobby Jones — the winner of golf’s original Grand Slam (the United States and British opens and two amateur tournaments) in 1930 and the co-founder of Augusta National, home of the Masters, in 1934 — and played him to a draw in an exhibition match.
And he bested Billy Casper, winner of the 1959 United States Open, in a head-to-head, made-for-TV event in 1961.
But Gonzalez had passed up chances to thrive on the PGA and European tours. He concentrated on the Brazilian championships and was content to remain the head pro at the Gávea Golf and Country Club in Rio, where he taught from 1949 to 1984. He also said he preferred to devote time to his family, including his son, Jaime, who went on to play on the European tour and briefly the PGA Tour.
“If he had played more on the PGA Tour, I am sure he would be in the Hall of Fame,” Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina, Latin America’s leading golfer of the 1940s and ′50s and winner of the 1967 British Open, told Golf.com in August 2016.
Alexandre Rocha, a leading Brazilian player who has appeared on the PGA and European Tours, called Gonzalez “a legend.”
“Mario is the beginning,” he said in a Golf Channel interview leading up to the 2016 Games. “Without him I’m not here.”
Once, Rocha said, in a nine-hole round with him, Gonzalez put on “the most unbelievable display of ball stroking I’ve ever seen.”
Mario Gonzalez was born on Nov. 11, 1922, in Sao Paulo, where his father, José, designed golf courses and was an instructor. Mario weighed only 125 pounds or so as a young man but hit powerful drives.
After he won the Argentine Open in 1940, Brazil’s president sponsored him on a four-month American tour. Gonzalez played in the 1941 United States Open in Forth Worth, missing the cut, but held Jones to a draw in 18-hole play at East Lake, Jones’s home course near Atlanta. After that exhibition, Jones called him “a great young player.”
Gonzalez won the Grand Challenge Cup at Royal St. George’s in England in May 1948, then competed that summer as an amateur in the British Open at Muirfield in Scotland.
In the third round, on a cold, rainy Saturday, he shot a 70, the lowest round of the day, putting him in the hunt for victory. But his final round of 75 dropped him to 11th place for the tournament, won for the third time by Henry Cotton of Britain. But Gonzalez finished as one of two low amateurs in the Open, sharing that distinction with an American, Capt. Ed Kingsley, who was stationed in Germany.
“When he didn’t win, I was surprised,” the five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson of Australia once recalled. “The poor guy told me he was shivering the whole time because he wasn’t accustomed to the cold.”
Gonzalez played in two United States Opens and two Masters and won the Argentine Open twice, the second time in 1953, when De Vicenzo was the runner-up.
Jaime Gonzalez won four Brazilian amateur titles, played on the PGA and European tours and tutored Rocha at the São Fernando Golf Club.
Mario Gonzalez, who turned pro in 1949, was in the international sports spotlight in 1961, when he played at Gávea in the first installment of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.” It became an annual internationally televised program featuring matches at courses around the world in which a prominent American golfer faced a top foreign pro.
Gonzalez shot a 68 for a three-stroke victory over Casper and was hoisted by the crowd on its shoulders.
As Rocha once put it: “Casper wins the United States Open, he goes to Brazil. ‘Who’s Mario?’ Mario just whips him.”
Gonzalez’s death was announced by the PGA Tour Latino Americano, which said he had cancer.
In addition to his son Jaime, Gonzalez’s survivors include his wife, Pilar, and his sons Rafael and Mario. Both Jaime and Rafael are among the leading teaching pros in Brazil.
The family patriarch continued to teach golf after his playing career ended.
“No regrets,” Gonzalez told Golf.com, reflecting on his failure to fully test himself on foreign tours. “I consider myself a fully accomplished person. I was proud then, and I’m proud today.”
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