College golf, along with penmanship exercises and reading the Congressional Record, long has ranked high in the major boredom league. As a certified collegiate gate puller, it is about on a par with intramural Softball. Which is a pity, because its best players really should be seen—and believed. As Frank Hannigan, assistant director of the USGA, said last week, "The only difference between these guys and the pros is right up here." And he pointed to his head.
Hannigan was in Cape Coral, Fla. for the NCAA golf championships, a waterlogged, windblown site where practice had been cut short by Hurricane Agnes and hope of victory had been cut short by the arrival of two University of Texas aces, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. As a freshman last year, Crenshaw had won the NCAA individual title with a score of 15 under par, and Texas had strolled to the team title. Kite, ranked No. 2 on the Texas team, had ranked second among amateurs in last week's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and finished 20th in the field. In 1970 he had been runner-up in the U.S. Amateur. Between them, Crenshaw and Kite had played in five Opens and three Masters, which ought to be enough to awe the fellows back at the dorm.
Still, earnest challenges were expected from Wake Forest, which had Jim Simons, fifth in the 1971 U.S. Open, and Eddie Pearce, only a sophomore but a crisp striker of the ball, and the University of Houston. Strong as always, Houston had John Mills, runner-up to Crenshaw last year, plus Jim McLean, who was good enough to make this year's Open, too.
Because of the huge field—237—play started at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday and lasted until dusk, but there was no need to wait until sunset to find who had made the most of the long day. Kite was flying with a seven-under-par 65, fashioned primarily around an eagle-birdie-eagle stretch early in the final nine holes. Crenshaw, meanwhile, shot a bland 71 and was tied for ninth place. It appeared that Kite finally was on the verge of conquering his teammate and nemesis.
As golfers, Crenshaw and Kite are similar in only one respect: they both play out of the same turf, Austin (Texas) Country Club. Frequently described as the ail-American boy, Crenshaw has a strong build and a clean-cut handsome face set off by pearly teeth and hair that falls in blond swirls over his ears. There is a steadfast wholesome air about him that makes mothers smile and girls sigh. "I think he looks like Ryan O'Neal." says Nancy Hager, his girl friend, who is herself a good enough golfer to have been named as an alternate to the current women's U.S. Curtis Cup team. "But my mother said, 'Oh, Nancy, Ben's better looking than Ryan O'Neal.' I guess he is, too."
For the past three years people have been predicting that Crenshaw, now only 20, would be the next Jack Nicklaus or the new Arnold Palmer or the future Bobby Jones. He has a classic, rhythmic swing, hits the ball with crunch, and chips and putts with dexterity.
Kite, by contrast, is a bit on the pudgy side. A 22-year-old senior, he wears glasses and a cap that shields his pinkish complexion and kinky curly hair from the sun. Because of his hair, his teammates call him Pink Pad, a name taken from a scouring product commercial. In addition, Kite bears the unfortunate burden of appearing disgruntled much of the time.
"Ben and Tom are complete opposites," says Brent Buckman, a member of the Texas team. "Tom is a perfectionist. He goes out on the practice tee and he'll just hit balls and hit balls. If he doesn't hit each one perfectly he'll get mad at himself and stay mad. The only thing Tom wants to do is beat Ben. But he gets just so close, and then something happens...."
On the tournament's second day Kite shot a 68, but Crenshaw picked up a couple of eagles himself and had a 66 that moved him into second place, four strokes behind his teammate. And Texas was threatening to make a runaway of the team event, moving 14 strokes ahead of Houston. Wake Forest, with Pearce and Simons looking forward to impending professional careers, had some of those mental short circuits Hannigan had alluded to and barely made the cut for the final two days.
"It used to bother me," said Kite that day, speaking about the adulation being heaped on Crenshaw while he, in fact, was leading the tournament and being largely ignored. "It doesn't anymore. Everything you read is Crenshaw. He's got the charisma of Palmer. It makes it that much more enjoyable to me if I beat him, because I'm thinking he's got all those guys out there watching him and they're missing all of my good shots."
During the third round on Friday, nobody could have missed many of Kite's good shots. He was 42 on the front nine, finished with a 78 and stormed off the course in fourth place, four strokes behind Crenshaw, who had a 70. "I don't know what I had today, but it was probably 90," he snapped at a bystander who should have known better than to ask.
Kite complained that it took almost six hours to play his round, and that his concentration was shattered on the 1st tee when he waited over an hour because the tee times were late. He blasted the NCAA for the way it ran the tournament, then stomped off for a dinner of ground glass and poison.
Still, Houston managed to pick up only six strokes on Texas, and barring another horrible round by Kite, or one by Crenshaw, Texas seemed to have the team championship safely in hand for another year. All that was left to be decided was whether Kite could, for once, catch Crenshaw.
"Just about every tournament we've played in, we've finished one-two," said Ben in his motel room Friday night. He had missed the cut in this year's Open, the first time that has happened in his seven professional tournaments, and he said he thought the disappointment would serve to sharpen his desire to win. This desire is an awesome, fanatical thing. He lives and thinks golf so much of his waking day, he admits, that he has a hard time being serious about his schoolwork. "I think it'll take me eight years to get my degree," he said. "I'm just piddling around; it really is a farce. All through college, I've never had anything on my mind except golf. I can't get interested in anything else."
"Every day Ben's playing in the U.S. Open," laughed Nancy.
"No," said Ben. "I just want to see how many under par I can get each day. Every time I flub up, I really get hot. I've known so many good players who've gone out on the tour and just fallen on their faces. You can't tell until you get out there. I guess it's just a matter of will and determination."
It is not, he insists, a matter of style, particularly his own. Crenshaw hates to practice and he pretends to know nothing of theory. "Sometimes I get up to the ball and just think: a little hook. But I don't think anything about where my hands are during the swing or stuff like that." Which may explain why every now and then he endures spells where his game is as vulnerable as a sand castle facing a rising tide.
In the final round Saturday, Crenshaw had a siege of disappearing golf during which he missed five straight greens. By the time he walked away from the 9th hole, he had shot a 38 and now was in a four-way tie for first with Kite, who played the front side two-under, and Howard Twitty of Arizona State and Bill Rogers of Houston.
Twitty and Rogers quickly eliminated themselves with double bogeys, and that left it between the men from Austin, just as had been expected. Encouraged by a pep talk and a pat on the back from Nancy at the 10th tee, Crenshaw wedged to within two feet for a birdie at almost the same moment that Kite was birdieing the 11th with a 10-foot putt. Still all tied, and so it went.
Kite finished with a 68, clinching the team title for Texas, and was turning in his score as Crenshaw stood back on the 18th tee, needing a par to tie.
After a tepid tee shot that nestled troublesomely near a tree, Crenshaw pull-hooked his second shot far left of the 18th green, about 40 yards from the pin. It looked as if it was all over. Only the courage of Palmer, the skill of Nicklaus and the touch of Jones could save him. Right? Kite knew better. He loped off to get a soft drink so that he would not see Crenshaw wedge weakly onto the green some 30 feet from the cup. Nor would he see Crenshaw rap the putt boldly, dead on line. It smacked against the back of the cup, popped straight up in the air and fell in the hole for the tie.
"Is he unreal?" said Houston's disbelieving John Mills, who was standing nearby. "Is he unreal? He's a god."
"I figured he'd get it up and down, because he always does," Kite said later. "I don't know how he does it." Neither does Ben. He just does.