Falling Under Crenshaws Spell


When Ben Crenshaw joined the PGA Tour in 1973, expectations were enormous. The Texas golf fraternity has always been a tightly knit group, back to the days when Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan came out of the same caddie yard in Fort Worth. The camaraderie was a joy, but with it came the pressure of carrying the hopes of a golf hungry state. As Dan Jenkins has pointed out so many times, nothing is as important to Texans as their golf and their college football.
Crenshaw won the Fred Haskins award as the outstanding collegiate golfer three years in a row, from 1971-73. He won the NCAA Championship each of those years as well, sharing it in 1972 with his University of Texas teammate, Tom Kite.
Runner-up in the '72 U.S. Amateur, Crenshaw won the PGA Tour qualifying tournament by a record 12 strokes. His PGA Tour debut was 80 miles down Ineterstate 35 from his hometown. By Sunday he had won the Texas Open (then known as the San Antonio-Texas Open) by two shots over Orville Moody. Texas golf fans had their new Nelson, their new Hogan.
While Crenshaw possessed the pedigree, swing and hometown, which would endear him to Texas golf fans, he also had the looks, charisma and intensity to capture the hearts of those outside of the Lone Star State as well. Like great players before and after him, Crenshaw's admirers would forgive transgressions, applaud his heroics, and practically swoon in his presence.
My sister was the first person I knew to fall under the Crenshaw spell. When we would visit my father on the road, Liz always wanted to know if Ben would be playing. She had just entered her teens and had only showed interest in Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy, so I couldn't quite figure out her preoccupation.
When we would see Ben at tournaments, I began to notice that the spell had spread throughout my family, along the X chromosome. The men weren't immune, just not as badly afflicted.
The symptoms appeared in my sister first, spreading quickly to my stepmother and grandmother - far-off look in the eyes, increased giggling, loss of rational coherent thought process and a fluttering of the eyelids. To a 12-year-old boy, it was just plain gross.
My dad had a mild case also. Painful side effects included the euphoria of an impossible birdie putt, followed immediately by the heartbreak of an inexcusable double. No one could lay a roller coaster round on you like Ben. My father could be very critical of players when he wasn't broadcasting, but any Crenshaw mistake was met simply with an 'awww, Bin.'
My father loved Ben like a son. He was so happy to have Ben on the Ryder Cup team he captained in 1981, and would have been overjoyed with the job Ben did in 1999. I remember going to Augusta in 1995 and following him. It was a magical week in a magical place. I was in the grandstand on 13 Sunday when he lined up a critical birdie putt. I knew the cauldron of emotion that swirled inside of him. I knew Harvey Penick was looking after his pupil and friend. I wanted to remind Ben to take dead aim. I didn't have to. He made the putt, and when I met up with my father after the BBC telecast, dad's eyes were red, his voice spent.
My dad died two years later and never got to see the Miracle at Brookline. He never got to hear that Ben Crenshaw would become the U.S. Ryder Cup captain. But he would have liked what he saw. I was in the pressroom the night Ben told the world about his 'feeling.' I came out of the interview area positive that the U.S. would be victorious. I bet my BBC friends a dollar that the Americans would win.
Then some older, wiser golf writers calmed me down, saying Ben had lost his mind and was talking gibberish. I realized that I had fallen under the spell.
The next day I interviewed Julie Crenshaw for the local NBC station and provided my commentary throughout the day. When it was all over, I ran to the 18th green, joining the celebration. I'd seen many things during my days in the game but the delirium at that moment was indescribable.
I looked for my friend, Tom Lehman, to congratulate him and I looked for Ben, but I couldn't find either. I floated up the walkway towards the locker room and was stopped by a guard. I turned around and Ben was right behind me. Our eyes met and he threw me in a bear hug and shouted, 'This is for your father. I've been thinking of him all week long.' We stood there hugging and crying in a champagne shower until he dragged me into the locker room.
I stayed longer than I should have before sprinting back to the set for our wrap-up show. I tried to put the day into perspective, but really couldn't. I still haven't been able to. A few weeks later, a dryer, more composed Ben Crenshaw wrote a note to my grandmother and told her the same things he had told me on the locker room patio at the Country Club. He said all the things a mother would like to hear about her son. She kept that note on her bedside table until she passed away a few months later.
Ben Crenshaw burst on the golf scene burdened by the impossibly high expectations of his fans. In the end he wound up exceeding mine.