A Breakthrough For The Heartbreak Kid

Ben Crenshaw, after a decade full of high promise and low fulfillment, won the 48th Masters, his first major championship
April 23, 1984

Finally, it was time for Ben Crenshaw. All the years, all the torment, all the disappointments faded into the tall Georgia pines on Sunday as the most popular golfer since Arnold Palmer won his first major championship, the Masters. It will also be remembered that Crenshaw won it over a leader board full of deadly assassins, that he won it on the back nine of the Augusta National course, where so many souls and titles have been lost or misplaced, and that he held on to it when it was only his to lose. As the little 32-year-old Texan walked up the last fairway, you could have watered the dogwoods with the tears of joy that were streaming out of the thousands whose hopes he had crushed so often. In a way, this one was for them.

Here was pro golf's onetime glamour boy living up to a reputation that had been dragging him through the bunkers and the trees for more than a decade, erasing the sorrow in a dashing two hours with a combination of splendid golf and "Little Ben," the nickname his father had given his magic putter so many years ago.

We all remember the early Crenshaw. He was "the cute Jack Nicklaus," just what the sport needed. He seemed to have been born on a magazine cover. He had ravaged amateur golf as a teenager. He had owned college golf, winning three NCAA titles at the University of Texas. Ben's Wrens had become a popular slogan on buttons and T shirts wherever he played and he had the following of a rock star, except that he played the putter.

After qualifying for the PGA Tour in 1973, he won his very first tournament and the thought was that Nicklaus had better lose even more weight and that Ben's Wrens were surely going to outnumber Lee's Fleas. The advice to Crenshaw from almost everyone was: Don't listen to anybody. Don't change a thing. Hit it, go find it and let Little Ben take it from there.

There was one problem. Crenshaw had a long, loose golf swing that was highly unpredictable, and on the PGA Tour the competition was a little tougher than it was on the teenage amateur circuit. And that swing just seemed to get looser and less reliable as the years passed by. But he could always count on his putting. Tom Kite, his old Austin high school adversary and college teammate and rival, once said, "I don't remember Ben ever missing a putt from the time he was 12 until he was 20."

He had been in contention for a major title so many times—at the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship—and each time an unforeseen calamity had struck. Five times he had been a runner-up in a major—including last year's Masters, won by Seve Ballesteros—while other players who were less talented, and surely less popular, had celebrated into the night. But this time he looked all week long like a young man with a purpose, and what he did in the last round at Augusta was make all of the good things happen to him, for a change. He played the best golf of his life from tee to green, avoided every catastrophe and, when he had to, he called on Little Ben, the best club in his bag.

There will be those who may choose to remember the 48th Masters as a championship that Crenshaw won on Sunday with Little Ben because of the 60-foot birdie putt he made at the 10th hole, the 12-foot birdie at the evil par-3 12th and the 15-footer, saving par, at the 14th. But those were really the only big putts Crenshaw holed in the four rounds, so the most satisfying thing of all for him was that he won the Masters the way great tournaments are supposed to be won—by playing golf shots.

His closing 68, a four-under round that brought him home with an 11-under total of 277 and a two-stroke victory over Tom Watson, was mostly a round of inspiration. Back on Thursday, he had opened with a nearly flawless five-under, 67, which gave him the first-day lead. This was a round in which he hit 17 greens in regulation and missed only two fairways off the tee. If he had been able to drop three or four putts of any length he might have won the tournament going away.

The two middle rounds, a 72 on Friday and a 70 that began on Saturday and ended early Sunday morning because of rain delays, might well have been the most critical for him. He got a little wild off the tee and made a few bogeys, but never did he stagger into the double bogey that might have undone him. There had been a couple of close calls but both times he rammed home three-foot putts for bogeys. This is called saving strokes. And it's also called confidence.

The real tip-off on Crenshaw may have revealed itself on Friday when he made five birdies and still only shot the 72 because of minor errors. He was playing beautifully, swinging better than ever and reading both the speed and the break of the slick greens better than anyone.

At that point, Crenshaw had lost his lead to a stranger named Mark Lye, a diabetic who had stunned Augusta in his first Masters appearance with rounds of 69 and 66 while munching on his candy bars between shots. But like every other experienced competitor in the field, Crenshaw had to believe that Lye would eventually go away. This he did, with rounds of 73-74, to finish in a tie for sixth place. Crenshaw knew he had to keep thinking about his own game. This he did.

"I've been trying to believe in myself for the past year and a half," Crenshaw said Sunday night. "I went back to my old swing and concentrated mainly on aiming the ball and on my timing. I spent 10 years working on my swing, and it didn't get me anything but a lot of disappointment. My dad was the one who said I had to go back to my old swing and live with it. There are a lot of funny swings in golf. Who wants Miller Barber's? Nobody, but I've seen him hit as many solid shots as anybody."

Crenshaw played 13 of his third-round holes on Saturday, before rain, hail and lightning prematurely concluded play. Those still on the course were obliged to come back out on Sunday at 8 a.m., and that was when Kite took the Masters lead by two strokes over Crenshaw and by one over Lye.

Sunday morning was the unseen golf. Few showed up early to watch when Tom Watson went back out to miss a 15-foot eagle putt at the 13th and par in the rest of the way. Kite went back out to save par from a bunker at the 12th and then birdied two more holes, including the 18th, to take the third-round lead. Lye went back out to the 12th to three-putt for a bogey, then found two bunkers at the 16th for his third double bogey of the tournament.

Lye had been the comic relief of this Masters. A 31-year-old bachelor, consumer of something called Nature Valley Chewy Granola Bars, a guy who had spent his nights jamming on his guitar with a member of Eric Clapton's band, a lanky 6'2" string bean with a funny gait and a big smile, Lye would say after his Friday 66, "I haven't had to deal with any funky 40-footers. I have no idea what those greens are doing out there. I don't think I can save any more shots than I already have."

Thus the first three rounds served largely to set the stage for the drama on Sunday, which overshadows everything that comes before it in most Masters. Crenshaw was simply one of a crowd when it came time for the last 18. A total of 18 players were within six strokes of the lead. Eight players were within four shots of Kite, who led with a nine-under 207. Lye was at 208, Crenshaw, Nick Faldo and David Graham were at 209, and Watson was at 210. Larry Nelson was considered a serious lurker at 211 after rounds of 69 and 66 had made up for his woeful start of 76.

Crenshaw mostly had to be concerned about golfers like Watson, Graham and Nelson, who had won 12 majors between them, who would know and understand what the pressure was going to be like because they had overcome it before—unlike himself.

Crenshaw played smoothly and confidently to a three-under 33 through nine holes with birdies at the par-5 2nd and 8th and then a beauty of a 10-foot birdie at the 9th. With nine holes to play, Crenshaw held a one-stroke lead on Kite and a two-shot lead on Nelson. Watson and Lye were three back.

If ever there was going to be a time when bad memories got the best of Crenshaw, it was going to be now. He'd once stood on the 71st tee with a two-iron in his hand tied for the lead of the U.S. Open. That was at Medinah in 1975. But that long, loose, unreliable swing had put a two-iron in the water. The result was a crushing double bogey that caused him to miss the Lou Graham-John Mahaffey playoff by a stroke. Four years later he'd stood on the 71st tee at Royal Lytham again tied for the lead, of the British Open. But that long, loose, unreliable swing had sent his tee shot soaring into the heather. The result was another double bogey, and he watched Ballesteros win that championship. Two weeks after that he'd gone into a playoff for the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills with David Graham. This time he bunkered his tee shot on the third extra hole while Graham birdied, and Crenshaw and his fans had once again been torn apart by a near miss—or a near win.

Now, on the back nine at Augusta, the possibility was always there that Crenshaw and his admirers might suffer another heartbreak.

But Little Ben stroked in his only real monster of the Masters, the 60-footer on 10. Only seconds earlier the usually steady Nelson, who had gone to nine under with a birdie at 11, came off an iron shot on the 12th tee that splashed into the infamous Rae's Creek, far short of the green. "I was just so pumped up, I was afraid of hitting it over the green," said Nelson. "So I hit it fat." In a few crucial minutes, Crenshaw went to 11 under and Nelson double-bogeyed back to seven under. It was almost as if Ben's putt had sent a shock wave through the whole field—and perhaps it did. Little Ben is a rear-shafted relic that Crenshaw's father had given Ben for his 15th birthday.

"I've only been without it a few times in my life," said Crenshaw. "Usually when it ran up a tree."

The next big swing would come between Crenshaw and Kite at the 12th. There, Crenshaw would hit a six-iron 12 feet short of the water-guarded flag and ram home the putt for a birdie. And moments later, Kite would do what Nelson had done—find the water with a seven-iron and totally collapse with a triple-bogey six, a blow that sent him reeling to a disastrous round of 75 and a tie for sixth, the eighth time in nine years that Kite had finished in the top six. "This is always a hard club-selection hole," he said. Players used as much as a six-iron and as little as a nine-iron there during the tournament.

Crenshaw and Kite have never been close friends. So the blow was an extra hard one for Kite, because, as few people realize, Kite has yet to win his first major. In fact, in four of the last seven years, Kite has won more money than Crenshaw, though nobody seems to know it.

"We're better friends now than we were," said Kite. "Our life-styles were always a little bit different."

Said Crenshaw, "I know how Tom must feel, because I've been there."

From the 13th on in, it was Crenshaw's Masters to lose, but he wasn't about to do it. He smartly laid up at that par-5 hole and settled for a 5, he saved a par at the 14th with a 15-foot second putt that was vintage Crenshaw, then he birdied the par-5 15th after again laying up on his second. He parred 16 and slipped to a bogey at the 17th when adrenaline sent his seven-iron just over the green.

Oddly enough, even though the back nine had been a triumph for Crenshaw, there was still an element of doubt with one hole to play. There had to be, given all those terrible memories. Watson had birdied the 16th and 18th holes to close with a 69 and a total of 279, nine under. Crenshaw had to play the 18th with only a two-stroke lead, and double bogeys can be made on any hole at Augusta. Palmer had once double-bogeyed the 18th to lose a Masters to Gary Player. And now Crenshaw was on the tee—with Watson, who wins majors, in the house.

It wasn't going to happen. Crenshaw put a perfect three-wood into the fairway and a cozy five-iron onto the green, 20 feet from the cup. He two-putted for his par and his two-shot victory.

At last, the double bogeys and water hazards that had haunted him in the past had brought down others, and now he could speak of the years of distress.

"I've put too much pressure on myself, there's no question about it," he said. "I love golf and golf history. I've dreamed of winning major championships. I've wondered when it was ever going to happen to me. I'd thought two years ago that it would never happen. I guess you can say this is more of a relief than anything."

And he liked the way he won.

"Golf is the hardest game in the world to play well," he said, "and as soon as you start thinking you're somebody special, it'll teach you a lesson." Ever the golf historian, Crenshaw recalled the words of Bobby Jones and quoted him: "You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about."

It is an awkward thing to discuss now, but the best thing Crenshaw had going for him—peace of mind—might have been the result of his putting marital discord out of his life. His roommates most of the week were country and western stars, the Gatlin brothers, and not his wife, Polly, long admired as one of the tour's prettiest wives. The new Masters champion and Polly, who was in the Virgin Islands, are separated, headed for a divorce that has been on-again-off-again during the past few years of Crenshaw's turbulent career. Polly and Ben were the Hollywood couple of the tour. She was the lead Wren, a gorgeous blonde who married Ben when she was 17 and tried to learn as much about Harry Vardon as she knew about The Rolling Stones. She gave up college proms for a guy who putted on hotel carpets, and so, perhaps from the beginning, this tour marriage wasn't going to be an easy one.

Their friends are happy that the split is mutual and amicable, and they were certain that wherever Polly was Sunday night, she was as thrilled to hear of Ben's victory as she would have been had she been dolling up the gallery.

Nothing could say more about the popularity of Crenshaw's victory than the comment of another wife, Penny Wadkins, whose husband, Lanny, was among headliners like Ballesteros, Hal Sutton add Johnny Miller who would miss the 36-hole cut. On Friday afternoon, as Lanny was struggling on the course and Penny was trudging mournfully over the fairways, she ran into a friend in the gallery.

"It's not our week," Penny said to her friend, "but pull for Ben and tell him that we're rooting for him."

So was just about everybody else on Sunday, and Gentle Ben knew it.

"I'm fortunate to have so many friends," he said when it was over. "And if there was one thing going through my mind out there it was how I didn't want to let everybody down again."

This time, Crenshaw didn't, and now those dogwoods will be partly his forever. Mainly because he stayed out of them for a change.

TWO PHOTOSWhen the tournament was his to lose on the final nine, Crenshaw called on "Little Ben" and sank this 60-foot birdie putt on the 10th. THREE PHOTOSOne of Crenshaw's few errant shots found a 9th-hole bunker on Saturday, but he came out of the trap and into the cup for birdie. PHOTOLye was the surprise leader after Round 2, but bogeys ultimately brought him down. PHOTOFor a while it was Kite (above) vs. Crenshaw, as in the old days back in Texas, until Tom dug a deep hole for himself on Sunday. PHOTONelson put some good licks on the field. PHOTOGraham, winner of two majors, was briefly in position to sandbag Crenshaw's hopes. PHOTOVictim of a recent minislump of his own, Watson had to be pleased with second. PHOTOFred Couples got onto the leader board with a third-round 67, but Augusta's slick and undulating greens put him in his place—10th. PHOTOAugusta was tough on the galleries, too, with thunder, lightning, rain and hailstones. TWO PHOTOSAfter Crenshaw's final putt, Ballesteros bestowed the jacket Ben had dreamed about.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)