'This One Was For My Friends'

A man of rare graciousness in his years of despair, Ben Crenshaw is still that after his epic Masters win
May 13, 1984

For two weeks, between his stirring victory in the Masters and last week's Tournament of Champions, Ben Crenshaw was home in Austin, Texas, going about the business of being the long-overdue winner of a major championship and finding out that it was a very nice business indeed. All of Austin seemed to be smiling at him, not tentatively, the way people smile at a celebrity, hoping for something in return, but fondly, taking pleasure from his happiness.

"Hey, Bin. Howrya, boy?"

"Hey, Bin. We're so happy for you."

"Hey, Bin. We were pullin' for you."

That everybody loves a winner is one of life's mournful axioms, mournful because of the picture that its harsh corollary brings to mind—of the loser, suddenly alone and friendless. In spite of the crushing disappointments that have plagued his 11-year career in professional golf—finishing second in five major championships and playing five full seasons without a win of any kind—Crenshaw, 32, has never been friendless. Far from it. His grace through his long ordeal as he carried the increasingly heavy burden of his own and others' expectations has inspired more admiration than most golfers, no matter how successful, can expect in a lifetime. His agony when he was on the golf course was palpable even through the filter of a television camera, but he always left it there. The blame for his failures remained in the only place an honest golfer can put it, not in the rough or a caddie's error or nature's heartless whims, but inside his own tortured head. For his opponents and the rest of us, there was always a big Texas grin. Crenshaw seemed sorrier for what he was putting his friends through than he was for himself.

"This one was for my friends," he said two weeks after the Masters, in the low, choked tones that still seized his voice every time he tried to express his feelings. "I'm so lucky I've got friends."

Perhaps only serious golfers understand fully how devastating their game can be, and maybe it's that understanding that creates the camaraderie that exists among them. "It's a feeling," says Crenshaw, "like we're all in this together and golf is a tough game and it's up and down all the time. It's an incredible bond."

The bond was evident at a March of Dimes benefit held at an Austin restaurant on April 26, while the Legends of Golf Tournament was under way at Onion Creek Country Club, south of town. Arnold Palmer, as honorary national chairman of the March of Dimes, presided, and the legends themselves were there in force, men with weathered faces and calloused hands—Doug Sanders, Charlie Sifford, Jackie Burke, Orville Moody, Miller Barber, Lionel and Jay Hebert and others. The party had been planned for months, but after Crenshaw's Masters victory it was hastily transformed into an event to honor him. The walls were decorated with his picture and the ceiling was hung with mementos of his tour victories. Introducing Crenshaw, Palmer, always a competitor, drew a laugh when he said, "This isn't easy for me." But he went on to say, "He's done a great job with his life and his profession. We couldn't be more happy to have Ben Crenshaw joining the Masters club." There was prolonged applause. No whistles, no "Hook 'em Horns," just a lot of people—golfers, friends, strangers—all of them standing and clapping and smiling at the short (5'9"), sturdy (170 pounds) young man with the nice face.

When Crenshaw turned professional in 1973 after his junior year at the University of Texas, he was already a legend in the Lone Star State. At 11 he had shot a 74 on the Austin Municipal course. At 13 he qualified for the Texas Junior championship with a 70. In his senior year at Austin High he won 18 of the 19 tournaments he entered. That summer at Hazeltine, outside Minneapolis, a terror of an Open course, Crenshaw, at 18, became the second-youngest low amateur in the history of the U.S. Open, a distinction he still holds, and finished ahead of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. At Texas he won the NCAA individual championship three times, once in a tie with his teammate Tom Kite, and in his last year he was in a league by himself, winning 11 of his 15 tournaments.

In those days Crenshaw was known for his phenomenal putting, his long, flowing, natural swing, his temper on the course and his sweet disposition off it. It was Dick Collins, then a sportswriter for the Austin American-Statesman, who first called him Gentle Ben when he was still in high school. "There was a TV series about a kid and a bear," says Collins. "It was the bear that was Gentle Ben, but the name seemed appropriate at the time."

Given Crenshaw's collegiate record, it isn't surprising that the predictions for his future were extravagant. Dave Williams, the golf coach at the University of Houston, said, "Crenshaw is a superstar already, one of the top 10 players in the world, amateur or pro. I think he'll be better than Jack Nicklaus when he gets on the tour." Labron Harris, then golf coach at Oklahoma State, said, "He's another Jack Nicklaus or Bobby Jones—in that class." Eddie Merrins, the pro at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, said, "Ben's swing is the type that will never stop repeating. It's like Sam Snead's. It was there the first time he swung a club and it'll always be there."

At first it looked as though they were right. At the 1973 PGA qualifying school, Crenshaw beat the field by 12 shots, and then he won his first tournament as a pro with a 65-72-66-67—270 that was 14 under par at the San Antonio-Texas Open. Two weeks later he finished second to Barber in the 144-hole World Open on Pinehurst's famed No. 2 course, having shot a 64 in a high wind in one round. Even Nicklaus was reported to have said, "He'll make $2 million sooner than I did." (Nicklaus had attained that figure at age 33; Crenshaw, who will turn 33 next January, is still $138,817 shy.)

But then the first of many droughts set in. Crenshaw did not score another win for more than two years, and when he did—nine times in all going into this year's Masters—it was just never the right tournament. Not the U.S. Open, the British Open, the Masters or the PGA—not the tournaments that children of destiny are supposed to win.

What at first was only puzzling to Crenshaw became baffling, which led to insecurity, which bred confusion, which finally became desperation. He'd been second on the money list in 1976, fifth in 1979 and 1980. In 1981 he fell to 20th. But the worst year of all was 1982, when he slipped all the way to 83rd. In August of that year, having missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, he went home to Austin to assess the damage, his confidence shattered.

"People were telling me all kinds of things and trying to help," he says. "But by then it was going in one ear and out the other. A golfer always looks for quick cures—patch up one little part of his game so it'll be better for one week, one day, one shot. I'd be on the practice tee and I'd see somebody coming toward me and I'd think, 'He's going to say something about my swing,' and I'd go to the other end of the practice tee. I was a basket case."

The long, flowing, natural swing that was supposed to repeat itself forever was still long, with the club head traveling more than 270 degrees on the backswing, but the confidence that allows instinct to work its wonders with such a swing was in tatters. For years people who know about such things had wondered aloud and in print about Crenshaw's swing. Was it too long? Was it too loose? With no great record of success with which to counter their criticisms, Crenshaw, too, had first begun to wonder, then to listen and finally to agree.

"I took it all way too personal," he says. "It was all constructive criticism, no one intended to do me any harm, but I was embarrassed that my swing wasn't up to their standards. I got to where I couldn't hit a shot without thinking of all kinds of things, of what I was trying to do a certain day, which was different from what I'd been trying to do the week before. Infinite things. I reached the very lowest point at Southern Hills. It was the worst golf you can imagine. I didn't have any idea what was happening."

Since he first swung a sawed-off five-iron at the age of eight, Crenshaw has had only two teachers, his father, Charles, an Austin lawyer who was a fine amateur player in his day, and Harvey Penick, the pro for 61 years at the Austin Country Club. It was Charlie Crenshaw who saw to it that Ben went to the University of Texas. "By the time he was a senior in high school," says Charlie, a big man with a soft voice and a kind face, "he was such a good little golfer, I wanted him to stay here so he could be near me and Harvey, especially Harvey. Coaches tend to coach, and I didn't want anybody to coach Ben. I always said, if something goes wrong, Harvey knows just where to touch him."

At Texas, Crenshaw's coach was George Hannon, now the pro at the Morris Williams course in Austin. "I've been asked how I coached Ben," Hannon says. "I left him alone. How're you going to improve somebody who shoots good golf day in and day out? Ben was the best young player I ever saw. When he was a freshman, he was like a senior in his development.

Crenshaw was 30 when he came home to Austin after the 1982 PGA. "A lot of people thought I wanted to quit the game," he says. "I wasn't about to do that. I'd never quit golf; I like it too much. But I knew it was going to take a long, long time to come out of this one."

For three weeks Crenshaw, who had played golf almost every day of his life for 20 years, didn't play at all. "I just didn't want to," he says. But Charlie Crenshaw, Penick and Ben's good friend Brent Buckman, who was his teammate and roommate at Texas, went to work on his head just the same.

"I sensed he was lost inside," says Buckman, now the head pro at Onion Creek. "He didn't know which way to go. He'd forgotten how he used to do it. I just said to him, you're the same person you've always been."

"Ninety percent is in your mind," says Penick, now 79 and semiretired, but still tutoring Crenshaw and giving 20 lessons a week. "They put it in his mind that his swing was too long, but some of the greatest players have had long swings—Hogan, Vardon, Jones. It can get in your mind, some of these things. I think it was Jack Nicklaus who said the best needle of all is to get a guy wondering where that club head is at the top of his backswing."

"You can't think about much while you're swinging a golf club," says Charlie. "The thing to do is think about the back of the ball and hitting it. As long as he played that way he was very good. After he got out on the tour he began to wonder what he was doing."

Charlie suffered with Ben through the bad times. "It was just like it was myself almost," he says, wincing. Worse, Charlie felt partly responsible for Ben's troubles. "Seven or eight years ago I told him he had learned enough out there to depend on himself. I told him, 'You don't need to come running back to Dad and Harvey anymore.' So he listened to me, and then he got mixed up."

Just being in Austin was the beginning of Crenshaw's comeback. He's very fond of his hometown and comfortable there. Then his father, Penick and Buckman began the nurturing process. "All three of them told me, 'Look, you think your swing's too long? Just look at Bobby Jones in his prime or Sam Snead in his or Ben Hogan in his, or even Don January—they all took the club back past parallel. They haven't done too badly.' They were like psychiatrists, saying positive things to get me to believe in my game again, in my method, in my swing."

Slowly Crenshaw began to work his way through the accumulated clutter of nine years. At Penick's suggestion, he tried to concentrate not on his swing but on his setup, his alignment, his feet, the position of the ball, which had been fluctuating wildly as he tried different approaches to his swing. "In its simplest form," says Crenshaw, "you want the ball to fly in a certain way and you want it to finish in a certain place, so naturally you have to aim it first before any other stuff can happen. That's what I was overlooking. It's so simple...really simple. My swing hadn't changed that much, but the position of my feet and the position of the ball made it look like it had."

Although his game gradually improved, it wasn't until February 1983, at the Hawaiian Open, where he had a shot at winning, that the old Crenshaw, the natural, began to surface. "Starting after the Hawaiian Open," he says, "I haven't thought about my swing one iota. After all those years I was determined to aim more consistently, to allow my instincts and my muscles to work. Take instinct away from golf and there's nothing. You can't play any kind of shot. How can you chip over a bunker that's 40 yards away? How can you hit a ball in a wind—all that stuff? You can't do it by mechanics."

One day, about this time, perhaps sensing that his pupil had cut through the final layer, Penick once again touched Crenshaw in the right place. Penick said, "Ben Hogan didn't have the prettiest swing in the world, but Ben Hogan knew his game better than anyone else knew theirs."

"What Harvey was saying was 'Get back to your game, play it, live by it, do not change it,' " says Crenshaw. "It hit home."

Living by his game for Crenshaw means maintaining confidence in a swing that because of its looseness is now and then going to land him in trouble, that is probably going to produce better results on the inviting wide fairways of a course like Augusta National than on a U.S. Open course, where the fairways are narrow and the options few. It also means living with his temperament. "My golf game is much like my emotions—ups and downs and long, deep, dark spells," he says. "But that's kind of the way I am. That's my personality."

"He's at peace with himself now," says Buckman. "He has rededicated himself to being the best player he can be; maybe not the best in the world but the best he can be."

Charlie Crenshaw has developed a somewhat fatalistic view of tournament golf over the years. "Something guides these guys—the winners," he says. "It sounds like voodoo, I know, but it does seem like some outside force is at work. That putt on 10 that last day at Augusta, for instance, the 60-footer. Ben says he couldn't do it again with a thousand balls. I say, 'Except if you're supposed to.' Destiny takes hold. I'm glad the old friendly hand was on Ben. It just guided him through there. He won't have near that much pressure from now on. It should help him...but you never know about golf."

Even Ben admits to an eerie occurrence during the last round of the Masters. "When I hit my tee shot in good shape on the [par-5] 13th, after birdieing the 12th to go three shots up on Kite, Larry Nelson and Gil Morgan, I'm debating whether to go for the green in two or not. I watched Kite behind me dropping his ball on No. 12, so I knew he'd found the water and was going to make at least a double bogey [Kite made a triple bogey]. I knew I could knock my shot up on the 13th green with a four-wood. I wanted to. But I also knew it would be foolish. I was suffering over the decision. But then I thought about Billy Joe Patton. It was like a beacon."

Patton, who was serving as a rules committeeman at Augusta, is a Masters legend himself. And if Crenshaw knows anything better than he knows golf, it's golf history. In 1954 Patton might have become the only amateur ever to win the Masters if he hadn't tried to reach the 13th and 15th greens in two. Both times he had found the water. Crenshaw's decision, therefore, was made with that one glance at Patton. He laid up, scraped out a par, maintained his three-shot lead, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fate's friendly hand hasn't been so kind in the matter of Crenshaw's marriage to the former Polly Speno, the lovely blonde he married nine years ago when she was 18 and he was in his third year on the tour. Their tumultuous relationship, which over the past few years has at times been the despair of their friends, seems finally to be over. Polly filed for divorce in Texas the week before the Masters, but the decision to part, reached in mid-March, was mutual. "We knew we were going to do it," says Ben. "But until then we didn't know the timetable. I had notions about it a long time ago but I was hoping things would get better, and certainly she was, too. Being the wife of a professional golfer is a very thankless job in a lot of ways. I want people to know just how positive she was. It was very unselfish of her to put up for nine years with my passion for the game. Now I want to see her very happy and doing the things she wants to do."

Polly hasn't yet decided what that is going to be. For the moment she's living in their house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Austin, amid Ben's collection of golf books, old golf prints and antique golf clubs, while he has taken up temporary residence at the home of his father and stepmother a quarter mile away. The situation has had its awkward moments. Two weeks ago a CBS-TV crew was in the backyard of Ben and Polly's house, taping a segment for a forthcoming feature on Ben. Ben, Charlie and Ben's stepmother, Roberta, known to all as Bobbie, were to watch a replay of the final nine holes of the Masters on a monitor and comment on it for the TV cameras. Polly was present, but under the circumstances, all agreed, it wouldn't have been appropriate for her to sit in with the family on camera. On the other hand, Polly hadn't been at the Masters this year and was eager to hear what Ben had to say about it. So a chair was set off to one side, out of camera range, and from there Polly watched along with the others.

Like all touring pros, Crenshaw measures his life by the week, the length of time it takes to play a tour event. Of his marriage, he said one day, "We had some great weeks and we had some poor weeks."

Ben himself grew up in a family that by all accounts never had a bad week. He's the youngest of the three children of Charles, who worked his way through Baylor Law School waiting on tables and running a campus store with his older brother, Allen, and Pearl Crenshaw, a sixth-grade schoolteacher who died of a heart attack in 1974 during Ben's second year on the tour. Charlie remarried two years after Pearl's death, and the second marriage, to Bobbie, a woman of considerable wealth, has been blessedly happy. But even today neither father nor son can speak of Pearl without crying. Crenshaw emotions ride close to the surface.

"I never met a kinder soul in my life," says Ben of his mother. "I mean everybody loved her—everybody. I'll never forget one afternoon when I was 10, I wanted to play golf at Austin Municipal, which was near my house, but I couldn't find anybody to play with. I felt a little bit down because of that, but I went out by myself anyway. I was playing the 5th hole when my mother just appeared from the trees. She said, 'I knew you were alone' and she walked with me and watched. It's just how she was."

Penick says, "Pearl was a fine piano player. I think probably her nimble fingers have helped Ben a lot. And she knew children."

Charlie says, "Ben grew up in a home with a magnificent, marvelous mother and an older sister and brother, and we were all just filled with love for one another. My other two [Bonnie, 44, a high school librarian, and Charlie Jr., 33, a sales manager] are just as fine as Ben."

Crenshaw has a contemplative side. He's a bird watcher, for instance. He courts ridicule on the tour whenever he gets excited over spotting a scarlet tanager at Muirfield Village or a bald eagle at Ponte Vedra. "When I was about eight, I had a friend, John Staehely, who's now a very fine musician," Ben says. "Well, he started liking birds and I did, too, at about the same time. We just started studying them. I don't know why. But I've always kept it up. It's a little strange, probably."

He also likes to read. He cut his teeth, he likes to say, on Charles Price's The World of Golf, and now he has the golf library of a serious collector. From his reading has come a rare appreciation for golf's continuum. "Golf's an amateur game," he says. "That's how it began and that's its backbone. I think we're getting in trouble these days, leaning more toward the professional game. I mean, so many courses are being built for professionals. It's not right. It's very shortsighted. I guess when you get down to it, I'm a professional amateur."

Crenshaw's enduring hero is an amateur, Bobby Jones, the founding father of the Masters, "a man I love but I never met." Jones died in Atlanta when Ben was 19 years old. Crenshaw chose to read from Jones's Golf Is My Game at the March of Dimes function when he wanted to tell his friends how he felt about them. The large darkened room grew quiet. Sifford and Barber, over in a corner, moved closer to hear. A spotlight shone like the sun on Crenshaw's blond head and highlighted the broad planes of his face. He began to read from an address delivered by Jones to the citizens of St. Andrews, Scotland in 1958 on the occasion of his having been given the Freedom of the City, the only American since Benjamin Franklin to be so honored.

"When I say," Crenshaw read, "with due regard for the meaning of the word, that I am your friend, I have pledged to you the ultimate in loyalty and devotion...." The young Texas voice choked to a momentary stop over Jones's elegant words, but Crenshaw recovered and carried on. "...it is possible that I may be imposing upon you a greater burden than you are willing to assume...." And finally, "And so, my fellow citizens of St. Andrews, it is with this appreciation of the full sense of the word that I salute you as my friends."

The next day Brent Buckman said, "As soon as I heard that Ben was going to read Bobby Jones I knew he'd never make it. But Ben's no BSer. When he says something, he means it from his heart. I can also tell you that right now, he's happier than he's ever been in his life."

Crenshaw put it differently, though maybe he meant the same thing. "I can live with myself now," he said.

PHOTOCrenshaw's swing caused him more agony than ecstasy until he stopped fiddling and let it rip. PHOTOThe eyes of Texas Governor Mark White (left) shone on Ben and his dad after the Masters. PHOTOPenick's school is dominated by one stellar student. PHOTOBuckman played shrink when Crenshaw needed buoying. PHOTOCrenshaw never lost his masterful putting stroke. PHOTOBen's temporary refuge is the Austin homestead of Charlie and his stepmother, Bobbie. PHOTOPolly had it rough as a golf wife, but being Ben's friend is easier.

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)