The calming assurance came to Ben Crenshaw where so much had happened before. It was last spring, in the first round of his forty-third Masters Tournament, his favorite week of the year. He walked down the slope at the thirteenth hole, accompanied by ghosts of triumph and grief and questions that will never get answers. Crenshaw stopped his caddie, Carl Jackson, and looked at him square. “I’ve been thinking about this a long time,” he said.
“One more,” Crenshaw told Jackson. He announced the next day that the 2015 Masters would be his last.
The 63-year-old Texan will make his final start today in the first major championship of the golf season, an elite invitational he has won twice and the one to which he is most indelibly connected. From his regard for Augusta National Golf Club as a creation of the great amateur Bobby Jones to the strategic complexity of its holes, Crenshaw often cites the imprint the place has left on him as something close to holy. The decision to quit was neither simple nor easy.
But it did close a circle at Augusta National. Twenty years ago, Crenshaw won his second green jacket and the final tournament of his career. He was 43. He was beyond the form that won eighteen other PGA Tour tournaments and three individual national championships at the University of Texas. He was playing particularly flat golf that spring, including a lethargic performance the week before in New Orleans. But Crenshaw was also reeling. Harvey Penick, his lifelong friend and only golf teacher, died at the age of 90 on the Sunday before that Masters.
Penick had been a caddie and golf professional at Austin Country Club since 1912. He also was famous. His death was noted in newspapers ranging from the The Augusta Chronicle to The New York Times. He was an author, after all, with millions of copies of his Little Red Book and two subsequent titles in circulation. Many in golf felt the loss, but no one felt it more than Crenshaw. He considered Penick family – a favorite uncle, an older brother, a second father. They spent hours together in his youth among the pecans at the old Austin Country Club on Riverside Drive. They devoted much of that time to pitch shots and practice balls, but Crenshaw’s fonder memories take him back inside Penick’s ramshackle shop, where the walls were covered by posters of Jones and the club-repair room smelled of shellac. That’s where the boy grew to love the man.
On a Wednesday twenty years ago this week, Crenshaw carried Penick’s coffin to a grave under the oak tree at Memorial Park in Austin. He cried that afternoon on the flight to Georgia. The next morning, he took his uncertain stance in a light rain on the first tee of the Masters.
Crenshaw made a bogey five on the yawning, uphill par-four hole. The spectators knew he was playing under duress. Everyone at the Masters might have wondered if the fragile Crenshaw would or could even finish the tournament. Instead, he shot a graceful opening round of two-under-par 70, which he followed with scores of 67-69. And he answered questions about Penick at the end of every day. “I’ll carry Harvey in my heart until the day I die,” Crenshaw said on Saturday. His spirited play, confounding even to him, put Crenshaw in the lead and in the final pairing with Masters rookie Brian Henninger on Sunday. It was perhaps the most sentimental story in the history of golf since a working-class caddie named Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open in Boston in 1913. Eighty-two years later, Crenshaw walked to the end of the driveway at his rented house in the pines of East Georgia. He petitioned silently for the grace to bear what came that afternoon. Then he drove to the gates of Augusta National.
Texans have carved a deep, sometimes improbable, impression in the history of the four major championships of golf. The men and women who’ve won them learned the game in wind and sun and heat and dust and squalls blown in by hurricanes. Byron Nelson of Waxahachie swept the PGA Championship during his streak of eleven consecutive titles in a tireless 1945, when he won a record eighteen starts. Ben Hogan of Fort Worth claimed the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion the year after a collision with a Greyhound bus almost killed him. Tom Kite — another Penick disciple, and a longtime Crenshaw rival and friend from Austin — endured hostile winds raking Pebble Beach to capture the national championship in 1992.
All of them represent the high ideals of a stern, unwavering ethos. None of them approach what happened on Sunday, April 9, 1995.
Crenshaw played smoothly through nine holes on the final day of that miraculous Masters. He built a one-shot lead. He compiled pars at the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth holes. Ahead, Greg Norman and Davis Love III staged brief threats, but Crenshaw remained steady. Crenshaw traced an arcing drive around the right-to-left bend at the par-five thirteenth, where the bold think birdie. He and Jackson walked that familiar slope. The sun warmed the bill of his white Buick cap. The crowd thrummed, respecting the weight of the moment. Crenshaw scanned the loblollies for wind. There was no wind. There was nothing but his ball, which he found in the heart of the fairway.
Crenshaw lofted a shot that safely cleared a tributary two hundred yards distant. But it was not the shot he wanted to hit. He tugged his five-iron to the left, and his ball hopped through the green. Crenshaw barked at the result. It was his first demonstration of outright emotion through sixty-six holes that week. Now he faced an excruciating recovery – a short, slick and skittering bunt down a green banking hard toward the water. He chipped to twenty feet and holed the putt. Birdie four.
A par there might have cost him the Masters. Crenshaw won it by one over Love, whose father had played golf for Penick at Texas. Crenshaw could trace his scorecards that week for precisely where that single stroke mattered. The thirteenth fairway would be a fine place to start. Crenshaw said he felt Penick’s hand on his shoulder there and everywhere that day. “Fate has dictated another championship here,” he said, “as it does so many other things.”
Fate dictated his arrival last year at the slope on the thirteenth. Fate assured him it was time. The circle could close.
Fate now dictates one more Masters, as it does so many other things.
Kevin Robbins is a former sports writer for the Austin American-Statesman. He now teaches sports journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and is writing a biography of Harvey Penick for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.