When the ax fell last Friday afternoon at Augusta National, you could fairly hear a generation topple. Four of American golf's most celebrated champions—Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange and Tom Watson—missed the 36-hole cut, and a fifth, Lanny Wadkins, never even got to drive down Magnolia Lane, having failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time in 18 years. The early retirement of these fortysomething stars left an uncomfortable void on the leader board and raised an unavoidable question for these old warriors: Was this their last hurrah?
Sure, there will be other Masters and other majors, and there is always the possibility that these veterans will find a way to reinvent themselves one more time. (A 42-year-old Gary Player did that by winning at Augusta in 1978, and Crenshaw did it last year at 43 with his second Masters victory in 11 years.) But until then, all that's left is the jolt of their slipping on the banana peel at the same time.
"The game is built on momentum, and these players have lost theirs," says swing guru David Leadbetter. "Every time they play poorly, the pressure increases because time is slipping away."
Crenshaw's stirring victory last year at Augusta secured his place in golf history, but a 77-74 this time around had Gentle Ben throwing tantrums as well as golf clubs. After drowning two tee balls on the par-3 12th hole on Friday, Crenshaw slammed down his seven-iron in one of his most solid swings of the week. For Crenshaw it was only the third missed cut in 25 Masters, and it finished off a disconcerting 12 months. Since donning the green jacket last April, Crenshaw, now 44, has sputtered badly, missing 7 of 21 cuts and finishing in the top 10 of a tournament once. He also put up a doughnut in three matches at last September's Ryder Cup. Much of this can be traced to the emotional hangover from the Masters victory, which had been immediately preceded by the death of his mentor, Harvey Penick, but even Crenshaw is concerned. "Sure it's discouraging," he says. "Every week I'm finding a new way to lose strokes."
In fact, Crenshaw's play has been ragged for several years. "It doesn't seem so bad because I've capitalized on the opportunities that have come along," he says. But this is the most prolonged slump yet, and Crenshaw can't get the funk out of his game because of poor balance brought on by a sore toe in his right foot; dissatisfaction with a swing that, as he says, "just isn't in flow"; and, most ominously, a lack of confidence. "I've felt it slipping away for the last four years," he said on Friday, "and I can tell you the last two days here didn't exactly help."
Ditto for Watson. When he bogeyed the 36th hole to shoot 75-72 and miss the cut by a shot, one of the most remarkable streaks in golf came to an end. Watson, 46, had made the cut in all the other Masters he had played in as a professional, 21 straight, second to Sam Snead's 24. Circled by a pack of sharks with notebooks after Friday's round, the two-time Masters champion was asked if he was aware of the streak. "Obviously you are," he shot back.
But if Watson was a grumpy older gentleman, who can blame him? Since his last Tour win, in 1987, he has fought bravely against oppressive putting problems, showing perhaps more heart than he did when he was blitzing the Tour for 32 victories, including eight majors. But last Thursday at Augusta, Watson hit rock bottom. At the par-3 16th hole, he became the first person to five-putt at the Masters. He started with an uphill 60-footer, which he blew six feet past the cup, leaving a slick downhill comebacker. Watson blasted the putt by the hole, and it didn't stop until it was 40 feet down the hill. His third putt was again too strong, by four feet. He slashed this one two feet past and tapped in for a triple-bogey 6, which was all the more devastating because he had just birdied the par-5 15th to scrap back to even par on his round. "It's as disappointing a round as I've had in a long time," Watson said afterward.
So what now for the proud champion? "Keep on working," he says. "You can get it all back if you just keep on working."
It is the same mantra that has steeled the 46-year-old Kite during his 24 years on Tour. If blisters were birdies, Kite would be unbeatable, because he's still the game's hardest worker. However, Kite has not won in three years and had only one top-10 finish in '95. His 75-77 marked the first time he had missed back-to-back cuts at Augusta, a hard pill to swallow considering that during one 11-year stretch Kite had nine top-six Masters finishes. After the second round he pronounced himself happy with his swing and placed all the blame on his flat stick. "I putted horribly," Kite said with a nod to 68 ghastly putts over the two rounds. "I'm at rope's end. Honestly I don't know what to do. I'm buffaloed."
Kite has tinkered with his stance and put in the requisite hours on the practice green, but as his putting woes mount, the specter of Watson looms large. "It's the nerve factor," says Leadbetter. "These older players have been to the well so often, and now the well is dry."