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Crenshaw winding down long, emotional Masters journey

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – In the spring of 1972 Ben Crenshaw was poised to play his first Masters when he received an immediate introduction to the Augusta National way.

“I had pretty long hair and [chairman Clifford] Roberts just reeled me in,” Crenshaw recalled earlier this week.

“He was talking to me and he had a great monotone voice. And he said, ‘You know, Ben, Texans have done really well in this tournament. Jackie Burke, Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan.’ He said, ‘I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas. Sold a few oil leases. Sold some clothes down on the coast.’ He goes, ‘By the way, we have a barbershop on the grounds.’ Just like that. It was great. I went immediately and Mr. Johnson was the barber.”

Forty-four springs have passed since that wide-eyed 20-year-old amateur first drove down Magnolia Lane. And yet as Crenshaw embarked this week on his swansong tour of the course that has defined his career, he was still learning lessons about the former fruit nursery.

All the nuances, all the subtle strategies of a golf course that continually evolves while maintaining a sense of self, is what has inspired Crenshaw for more than four decades.

“You're required to do so much on this golf course,” he said. “You're required to think. I've always thought that you cannot win this tournament playing safe. You've got to take chances.”

Crenshaw announced last April that this would be his final Masters, figuring on Tuesday when he spoke with the media, “I've probably stayed too long.”

For the 63 year old, the new Augusta National is simply too much golf course and he’s failed to make a cut at the Masters since 2007. So, like the place that means so much to him, he is stepping down in subtle style.

There were no tears when he spoke with the media – although it seems likely they will come when he makes his final stroll up the 18th fairway, whenever that occurs.

Like the other former champions, Crenshaw is a direct connection to the game’s past.

In 1972, when Crenshaw made his debut, Thursday’s honorary starters were Jock Hutchison and Freddie McLeod. He watched Jack Nicklaus win his final Masters in 1986 and Woods win his first in ’97.

He’s also made a good share of his own history amid the azaleas and dogwoods.

Crenshaw clipped Tom Watson by two shots in 1984 for his first green jacket, but it was that second victory in ’95 that has established itself as one of the most memorable Masters moments.

On the eve of that tournament Crenshaw was back home in Austin, Texas, to attend the funeral of Harvey Penick, who first taught Gentle Ben the game at 6 years old.

Twenty-four hours later an admittedly emotional Crenshaw teed off with few, if any, expectations. He was fresh off missing the cut in three of his last four events and hadn’t broken 70 in two months on the PGA Tour. And, of course, there was the loss of Penick, which weighed heavily on him.

But with Carl Jackson on the bag, his caddie for all but four of his Masters starts, Crenshaw took a share of the 54-hole lead and birdied two of his last three holes for one-stroke victory over Davis Love III.

Following the final putt he collapsed in Jackson’s arms, his face in his hands and his emotions, as they always are, on his sleeve.

“Harvey was like a second father, and a wonderful teacher and a great person. To have played that well that week is beyond my comprehension,” Crenshaw recalled.

“I didn't harbor any thoughts about winning the tournament that week until I got into the tournament and started playing well, and my confidence got up. But to have won my favorite tournament for his memory will always be my best moment.”

Crenshaw taught generations how to play Alister MacKenzie’s gem, and not just Jordan Spieth and Brandt Snedeker, who have become frequent practice round partners over the years.

“That was the message to me,” said Nick Faldo when asked about Crenshaw’s legacy. “It’s not the highlight holes, it’s gutting out putts and shots that miss the highlight reel like he did in ’95.”

On Wednesday, Crenshaw tested the waters of a ceremonial golfer, replacing Arnold Palmer, who has been slowed recently by a dislocated shoulder, in the traditional group with Nicklaus and Gary Player in the Par 3 Contest.

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne also suggested that the club has something special planned for Crenshaw’s farewell, “I suspect we will see a very nice ending to Ben's round. I don't want to give away anymore secrets.”

In a rare moment of uncertainty for a man who has become the definition of conviction, Crenshaw was asked what he will do after this final turn at Augusta National.

Following a few moments of uncertainty he finally allowed, “Might just find a place in the grandstands on 15 and just sit there, I don't know.”