If ever anyone should have had an easy road in golf, it was Ben Crenshaw. He was born with transcendent talent, guided from boyhood by a master teacher and blessed with a warm, humble manner, a handsome face and a sharp mind. And he wielded, with perhaps the smoothest putting stroke ever, his own version of Wonderboy—Little Ben. The game simply had to be good to Ben Crenshaw.
But competitive golf is never easy, and with Crenshaw's talent came massive expectations. When he finally encountered failure, the shock led him to question the gifts his teacher, Harvey Penick, had implored him to trust. Somehow, much too quickly, Crenshaw's road turned rough. When he won, it was because he was supposed to. When he lost, he disappointed destiny. Crenshaw found out how heartless the game can be.
His inspirational triumph two weeks ago at the Masters gives the 43-year-old an honorable total of 19 PGA Tour victories, including two major championships, but Crenshaw was supposed to be better than that. A legend as a junior golfer in Austin, Crenshaw went to the University of Texas, where he won three consecutive NCAA individual titles, then went straight to a 12-stroke win over the field in his first Tour qualifying school and to victory in his first tournament as a professional, the 1973 San Antonio-Texas Open. The next Nicklaus? Crenshaw would be even more.
For some haunting reason he never fulfilled that promise. Perhaps Crenshaw's road changed at the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah, where, tied for the lead on the 71st hole, he mishit a two-iron into the water and double-bogeyed. At the Masters in 1977 he was tied for the lead after three rounds and shot 76. At the 1979 British Open, again tied for the lead on the 71st tee, he made another double bogey. Two weeks later at the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Crenshaw watched David Graham hole putts of 25 and 15 feet to stay alive on the first two holes of their playoff and was beaten on the third.
Crenshaw's early aura was such a vague memory when he won the 1984 Masters that even then the victory was seen as the crowning achievement of a fitful career. The next year he contracted a near career-ending case of Graves' disease, and by the time he had overcome it two years later, he was a gaunt, less powerful player. At Augusta in 1987 Crenshaw led on the back nine but bogeyed the 71st hole to miss a playoff by a stroke, and in '89 he bogeyed the 72nd to miss yet another. In the '87 Ryder Cup he lost a crucial singles match to Eamonn Darcy on the final hole after holding a one-up lead with two to play. Despite all the putts he holed, Crenshaw came to be regarded as a tragic golfer, an opinion supported by his 0-8 record in playoffs.
But Crenshaw endured. He kept his pain private and never became bitter. "I really do feel in my heart [that] in high school and college I played my best golf," he said in 1993. "I don't know why. Maybe I didn't think. I just did.... But it doesn't bother me anymore that I didn't turn out to be whatever."
What Crenshaw did turn out to be was a giver. His victories have always been for his friends, and his losses occasions for regretting how much he let them down. When Crenshaw's boyhood rival, Tom Kite, won the 1992 U.S. Open, it was the eloquent letter Crenshaw wrote him that moved Kite most. When, at the behest of the players, the Masters stopped requiring that competitors use caddies from the Augusta National's all-black staff in 1983, Crenshaw bucked the trend and kept Carl Jackson, the same caddie he tearfully embraced on the 72nd green this year. The courses he designs are agronomic paeans to classical architecture. His public assessments of the game and its players are informed, measured and edifying. Though Crenshaw can castigate himself mercilessly on the course, he is a man of grace and dignity.
While Crenshaw would be embarrassed by the comparison, he has followed the model of his idol, Bob Jones, of whom Herbert Warren Wind once wrote: "As a young man he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which isn't easy, and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst."
This year at Augusta, Crenshaw gave again. By trusting himself to play with passion and instinct, and by closing out victory with the courage to take dead aim, Crenshaw offered the most compelling gift possible to the memory of Harvey Penick. And when it was over and he wept, it was because the heartless game had never been so good to him.