Texas Twenty: Ben Crenshaw
At Augusta, He Turned the Loss of His Master Into a Magnificent Triumph.
When Ben Crenshaw teed off on the final day of the 1995 Masters, word raced across Texas: Could it be that the jaded world of sports was about to produce a rare moment of poetry? His friend and lifelong mentor, Harvey Penick, had just died, and Crenshaw and Tom Kite had made a whirlwind trip to Austin to serve as pallbearers at the renowned golf aphorist’s funeral, speeding back to Augusta, Georgia, in time for the opening round. Emotionally depleted, the 43-year-old Crenshaw might have considered withdrawing, and no one would have blamed him if he had. One of golf’s dominant players could no longer count on his game: He’d missed the cut in three of his last four tournaments, he hadn’t broken 70 in two months, and his once faithful putting stroke had turned on him. Yet here he was on the treacherous back nine this Sunday afternoon in April, tied for the lead with favorites Greg Norman and Davis Love III—and all of Texas was wishing him on.
So many Masters have been lost on the twelfth and thirteenth, two thirds of Augusta National’s unholy Amen Corner. But Crenshaw did not fall. He saved par with a huge shot from the bunker at twelve, then followed a poor second shot with a bold birdie putt at thirteen. He parred fourteen with a scrambling eight-iron punch from under a tree. The short par-five fifteenth had been a routine birdie for the pros all week, but for the fourth day in a row, Crenshaw could only manage a par. Now, still tied for the lead and with three difficult holes to go, he would need at least one and probably two birdies to win a serendipitous Masters title.
The pin of the 170-yard, par-three sixteenth was in the back left side of the green, with a large pond in front. All day the players had been trying to loft their balls straight at the flag, and many, including Norman and Love, had faltered; they had misjudged the hole and were left with putts of more than sixty feet. But Crenshaw hit one of the most pressure-filled shots in the game’s history, and as he stood over his ball, he was as cool as could be. “I was very peaceful going around the course,” he said. “I was having the best time doing what Harvey taught me—playing instinctive golf—and the ball was running for me.” He had chosen a six iron and took dead aim at the bank on the green’s right side. “It was a comfortable shot—I didn’t have to take anything off it or muscle it—and there was enough chase in the green that I knew if I could get the ball to turn right of the flag it would come back down like it did.” He made the putt. Then he made another birdie putt at seventeen and ended up bent over and weeping on the eighteenth green. It was a transcendent moment. Many people around the world wept with him.
In late July, a couple of days after the British Open (which he led for a while until putting woes got to him), Crenshaw was in his Austin office getting back in the swing of his other profession—designing golf courses. But the 23-year PGA Tour veteran was still in the grip of his win. “The Masters just happened,” he said. “I don’t know why the game of golf picked me, but I believe it chose me to honor Harvey that week.” He rhapsodized a bit about the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland and was quick to compare his Masters victory to Ben Hogan’s at the U.S. Open in 1950, after Hogan’s terrible automobile accident. He talked about hoping to make the Ryder Cup this year and some of his golf-course projects in Nebraska and Texas. But the conversation never drifted far from Penick. “I’ve gotten the darndest letters you’ve ever seen from people who don’t play golf, but who wanted to tell me about a mentor they had and for whom they had also been able to do something special in return. There are just so many dimensions to what happened at Augusta—I’ll be shaking my head for quite a while.”