Finally, it was time for Ben Crenshaw. All the years, all the torment, all the disappointments faded into the tall Georgia pines on Sunday as the most popular golfer since Arnold Palmer won his first major championship, the Masters. It will also be remembered that Crenshaw won it over a leader board full of deadly assassins, that he won it on the back nine of the Augusta National course, where so many souls and titles have been lost or misplaced, and that he held on to it when it was only his to lose. As the little 32-year-old Texan walked up the last fairway, you could have watered the dogwoods with the tears of joy that were streaming out of the thousands whose hopes he had crushed so often. In a way, this one was for them.
Here was pro golf's onetime glamour boy living up to a reputation that had been dragging him through the bunkers and the trees for more than a decade, erasing the sorrow in a dashing two hours with a combination of splendid golf and "Little Ben," the nickname his father had given his magic putter so many years ago.
We all remember the early Crenshaw. He was "the cute Jack Nicklaus," just what the sport needed. He seemed to have been born on a magazine cover. He had ravaged amateur golf as a teenager. He had owned college golf, winning three NCAA titles at the University of Texas. Ben's Wrens had become a popular slogan on buttons and T shirts wherever he played and he had the following of a rock star, except that he played the putter.
After qualifying for the PGA Tour in 1973, he won his very first tournament and the thought was that Nicklaus had better lose even more weight and that Ben's Wrens were surely going to outnumber Lee's Fleas. The advice to Crenshaw from almost everyone was: Don't listen to anybody. Don't change a thing. Hit it, go find it and let Little Ben take it from there.
There was one problem. Crenshaw had a long, loose golf swing that was highly unpredictable, and on the PGA Tour the competition was a little tougher than it was on the teenage amateur circuit. And that swing just seemed to get looser and less reliable as the years passed by. But he could always count on his putting. Tom Kite, his old Austin high school adversary and college teammate and rival, once said, "I don't remember Ben ever missing a putt from the time he was 12 until he was 20."
He had been in contention for a major title so many times—at the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship—and each time an unforeseen calamity had struck. Five times he had been a runner-up in a major—including last year's Masters, won by Seve Ballesteros—while other players who were less talented, and surely less popular, had celebrated into the night. But this time he looked all week long like a young man with a purpose, and what he did in the last round at Augusta was make all of the good things happen to him, for a change. He played the best golf of his life from tee to green, avoided every catastrophe and, when he had to, he called on Little Ben, the best club in his bag.
There will be those who may choose to remember the 48th Masters as a championship that Crenshaw won on Sunday with Little Ben because of the 60-foot birdie putt he made at the 10th hole, the 12-foot birdie at the evil par-3 12th and the 15-footer, saving par, at the 14th. But those were really the only big putts Crenshaw holed in the four rounds, so the most satisfying thing of all for him was that he won the Masters the way great tournaments are supposed to be won—by playing golf shots.
His closing 68, a four-under round that brought him home with an 11-under total of 277 and a two-stroke victory over Tom Watson, was mostly a round of inspiration. Back on Thursday, he had opened with a nearly flawless five-under, 67, which gave him the first-day lead. This was a round in which he hit 17 greens in regulation and missed only two fairways off the tee. If he had been able to drop three or four putts of any length he might have won the tournament going away.
The two middle rounds, a 72 on Friday and a 70 that began on Saturday and ended early Sunday morning because of rain delays, might well have been the most critical for him. He got a little wild off the tee and made a few bogeys, but never did he stagger into the double bogey that might have undone him. There had been a couple of close calls but both times he rammed home three-foot putts for bogeys. This is called saving strokes. And it's also called confidence.
The real tip-off on Crenshaw may have revealed itself on Friday when he made five birdies and still only shot the 72 because of minor errors. He was playing beautifully, swinging better than ever and reading both the speed and the break of the slick greens better than anyone.