I was a sportswriter in Houston in 1969 when a high school lad from Austin came to town to play in a golf tournament. Everyone thought surely this youngster was going to be the next Bobby Jones. Forget Palmer and Nicklaus. We had him here in our town. And I was sent out to do the story.
Sure enough, he won the tournament. He wasnt overly communicative, as I recall. His father came with him and answered a few questions. Then the youth was gone, leaving us to follow his exploits via the newspapers. It was much like young Tiger Woods, as a matter of fact, whom I covered when Tiger was still just a boy. Woods was playing the Junior Amateur at Bay Hill in Orlando about 20 years later, and again, his father did much of the talking. And again, I was sent to do the story, this time as a sportswriter from Orlando.
The difference is, we knew Ben Crenshaw was going to be the reincarnation of Jones-Palmer-Nicklaus. We just thought that Tiger could be. Of course, the events that have transpired since those days have been hugely significant. Woods has become the Jones-Palmer-Nicklaus reincarnation. Crenshaw was merely good.
I was a good player ' a darned good player, Crenshaw says in his book to be released April 3rd, A Feel for the Game: to Brookline and Back.
But however you want to define good and great, theres a vast gulf between the two, and Id have to be in the good category. I wasnt a great player.
Crenshaw, though, has had some great things happen to him in a tumultuous lifetime. Two Masters titles four Ryder Cups a stint in 1999 as winning Ryder Cup captain 19 PGA Tour victories. Through it all, though, he demonstrates in his book that time and time again he has found the greatest thing of all ' humbleness.
His Masters wins came at emotional bottoms ' gut-wrenching times, he calls them. The first came just after my decision to end my first marriage; the second, a week after Harvey died.
Harvey was Harvey Penick, the legendary golf instructor from Austin who was Crenshaws teacher. An entire chapter is devoted to him, from the time Ben first met him as a toddler who tagged along to the golf course with his father, to the 43-year-old man who was overcome with grief when Penick died on the Sunday prior to Crenshaws winning the Masters in 1995.
The book basically follows Crenshaws life: the little boy from Austin whose big challenge was catching big brother Charlie in baseball; his junior career in golf when, along with Eddie Pearce, he was the hottest player; to his relationship with another Austin youngster who was two years older, Tom Kite; to his life and times as a pro.
Crenshaw was so close to a major championship victory before his first win at the Masters in 84: the 75 U.S. Open at Medinah, 1977 at both the Masters and the British Open, the British Open in 78 and 79, the U.S. Open in 80 and the Masters in 83. It was an eternal search for the winning attitude, which Ben finally discovered.
It was highlighted in 1984 by a 60-feet putt on the 10th green, a green Crenshaw was admittedly just trying to two-putt. It gave him a two-shot lead over Kite. A pushed 6-iron at the 12th came up surprisingly close to the flag ' 12 feet, and the birdie put him ahead by three shots.
When the final putt fell in, the one thing I felt was relief, wrote Crenshaw. I went through it like everybody else who wins their first one, and it was tortuous. Its torture doubting yourself. You always feel capable of winning, but its one hell of a thing to prove it to yourself.
Eleven years later, it was fate. Harvey had died Sunday and Crenshaw heard the news while he and wife Julie were dining at Augusta. Ben flew back to Austin where he met Kite, and the two were pallbearers at the funeral Wednesday. On Thursday the tournament began with Crenshaw not expecting much.
But on Sunday afternoon, there he was, in the role of contender. I just kept thinking, Play each hole. Take what the course gives you. Feel the shot. Dont let anything come into your mind except those two things you were working on. And trust yourself, Crenshaw said.
And then came the final putt at 18 and it was over.
When the last putt dropped, I dropped, he wrote. I still get a lump in my throat when I talk about it. It was such a relief that it was over and I was thinking of so many things. I was thinking of the little guy starting out in golf, of Harvey, and of my family. And, I was thinking I was lucky.
He had to be lucky during his tenure as Ryder Cup captain. He describes in gripping detail the emotions that were going through the American team room as the Europeans amassed a four-point lead going into the final day. Then, the I believe in fate speech to the press. And the impossible task which suddenly became possible for an American victory.
The golfing world will probably be most interested in his reactions to heated criticism which came Americas way after the victory. Crenshaw deals with it in a chapter he calls, One Apology is Enough. He describes a phone call from European captain Mark James a week after the matches. James started by complimenting the American team, then launched into three assertions: 1, Payne Stewart was seen or overhead giving advice to another player, which is against the rules; 2, Andrew Coltart was sent off in the wrong direction when he asked marshals where to look for an errant drive; and 3, the Americans had intentionally incited the crowd.
Crenshaw takes great exception to these assertions. Youre going to accuse Payne Stewart of passing information to a player? he writes. That galls me. And assert that two marshals high-fived each other after sending Coltart in the wrong direction? And we incited the cheering?
The most troubling of the accusations, said Ben, was the players inciting the crowd. Mark described it with a soccer analogy, saying that if a player on your side incites the crowd, then your team receives a penalty, said Crenshaw. What I saw was a team getting excited about the way it was playing, and the fans reacting.
Crenshaw has achieved greatness in his own special way. His book, though, is another story. His book tells the story of a humble man, who went all the way to the top of the game.
Ben Crenshaw's Pro Bio
Full Coverage of the 2001 Masters Tournament