Professional tournament golf eased through another period of bizarre hilarity last week and came out of it better off than anyone would ever have guessed, mainly because 21-year-old Ben Crenshaw was around to do what a lot of 21-year-olds think they would like to do—save the world. Actually, it was the World Open he saved with his sensational style and ability, almost with his very presence, down in the worshipful forests of Pinehurst, N.C.
This was a tournament with heavy pretentions from the moment it was announced, a World Open for $500,000 contested over eight rounds, 144 holes. Right away it was not only the richest championship ever staged but the longest. But also right away it was doomed to have problems, and some of them were of the kind that no one is ever going to solve. Like how do you tell Jack Nicklaus that he has to be somewhere he doesn't want to be?
Nicklaus, the golfer of the age, was not in the World Open and, as it turned out, neither were Lee Trevino or Tom Weiskopf or Johnny Miller or Tony Jacklin. As a consequence, in and around Pinehurst over the last two weeks everybody wondered which world the sponsors were talking about, especially after the event trudged along in this one, long, gigantic yawn of producing leaders through the first five rounds with such names as C. L. (Gibby) Gilbert, Allen Miller and Tom Watson.
Then came Crenshaw. He crashed onto the scene in the sixth round, shooting a seven-under 64 in a high, vicious wind on the architectural monument known as Pinehurst No. 2, and it was said that this round under those conditions was probably the best ever on a course that has felt the cleats of the game's finest players for 50 years.
Crenshaw's 64 vaulted him from 25th place and 18 strokes off the lead into a tie for second and serious contention. Suddenly the tournament took on life, for Crenshaw is a thrilling personality with devastating talent and potential.
He had come to Pinehurst fresh from a couple of remarkable performances, having already been, for three years, a most impressive amateur, one who had captured the NCAA championship at the University of Texas a record three years in a row, which is impossible, and who had taken almost every amateur tournament he had chosen to enter—the Western, Southern, Sunnehanna, Northeastern, et cetera—until he turned pro in August.
His performance in the PGA qualifying school in October was stupefying. Over the eight rounds that were required at Perdido Bay and The Dunes at Myrtle Beach, Crenshaw was 16 under par and he beat the field by 12 strokes.
After that he entered his first tournament as an official touring pro and merely won it. He took the San Antonio-Texas Open just as easy as you please. And then on to Pinehurst, looking as if he had been born for immortality. But it was asking too much for him to win the World Open, too. The experienced Miller Barber, who had been playing steadily all the way and was, incidentally, hitting the best shots of his life, was destined to grab the $100,000 first prize.
It came down to just the two of them Saturday afternoon. For a while Crenshaw and Barber were tied for the lead, but Barber closed with birdies on the 14th and 18th holes for a splendid 69. And Crenshaw, though firing a nifty 71, made a bad swing at a tee shot on the 16th hole, a par-5 he wanted to reach in two to pick up a birdie he felt he needed. The result was a bogey, and a comfortable walk home for Barber.
"It wasn't inexperience," Crenshaw said. "I know how to win tournaments. And I wasn't feeling any pressure. I was just trying to drive the ball 500 yards."