Given Crenshaw's collegiate record, it isn't surprising that the predictions for his future were extravagant. Dave Williams, the golf coach at the University of Houston, said, "Crenshaw is a superstar already, one of the top 10 players in the world, amateur or pro. I think he'll be better than Jack Nicklaus when he gets on the tour." Labron Harris, then golf coach at Oklahoma State, said, "He's another Jack Nicklaus or Bobby Jones—in that class." Eddie Merrins, the pro at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, said, "Ben's swing is the type that will never stop repeating. It's like Sam Snead's. It was there the first time he swung a club and it'll always be there."
At first it looked as though they were right. At the 1973 PGA qualifying school, Crenshaw beat the field by 12 shots, and then he won his first tournament as a pro with a 65-72-66-67—270 that was 14 under par at the San Antonio-Texas Open. Two weeks later he finished second to Barber in the 144-hole World Open on Pinehurst's famed No. 2 course, having shot a 64 in a high wind in one round. Even Nicklaus was reported to have said, "He'll make $2 million sooner than I did." (Nicklaus had attained that figure at age 33; Crenshaw, who will turn 33 next January, is still $138,817 shy.)
But then the first of many droughts set in. Crenshaw did not score another win for more than two years, and when he did—nine times in all going into this year's Masters—it was just never the right tournament. Not the U.S. Open, the British Open, the Masters or the PGA—not the tournaments that children of destiny are supposed to win.
What at first was only puzzling to Crenshaw became baffling, which led to insecurity, which bred confusion, which finally became desperation. He'd been second on the money list in 1976, fifth in 1979 and 1980. In 1981 he fell to 20th. But the worst year of all was 1982, when he slipped all the way to 83rd. In August of that year, having missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, he went home to Austin to assess the damage, his confidence shattered.
"People were telling me all kinds of things and trying to help," he says. "But by then it was going in one ear and out the other. A golfer always looks for quick cures—patch up one little part of his game so it'll be better for one week, one day, one shot. I'd be on the practice tee and I'd see somebody coming toward me and I'd think, 'He's going to say something about my swing,' and I'd go to the other end of the practice tee. I was a basket case."
The long, flowing, natural swing that was supposed to repeat itself forever was still long, with the club head traveling more than 270 degrees on the backswing, but the confidence that allows instinct to work its wonders with such a swing was in tatters. For years people who know about such things had wondered aloud and in print about Crenshaw's swing. Was it too long? Was it too loose? With no great record of success with which to counter their criticisms, Crenshaw, too, had first begun to wonder, then to listen and finally to agree.
"I took it all way too personal," he says. "It was all constructive criticism, no one intended to do me any harm, but I was embarrassed that my swing wasn't up to their standards. I got to where I couldn't hit a shot without thinking of all kinds of things, of what I was trying to do a certain day, which was different from what I'd been trying to do the week before. Infinite things. I reached the very lowest point at Southern Hills. It was the worst golf you can imagine. I didn't have any idea what was happening."
Since he first swung a sawed-off five-iron at the age of eight, Crenshaw has had only two teachers, his father, Charles, an Austin lawyer who was a fine amateur player in his day, and Harvey Penick, the pro for 61 years at the Austin Country Club. It was Charlie Crenshaw who saw to it that Ben went to the University of Texas. "By the time he was a senior in high school," says Charlie, a big man with a soft voice and a kind face, "he was such a good little golfer, I wanted him to stay here so he could be near me and Harvey, especially Harvey. Coaches tend to coach, and I didn't want anybody to coach Ben. I always said, if something goes wrong, Harvey knows just where to touch him."
At Texas, Crenshaw's coach was George Hannon, now the pro at the Morris Williams course in Austin. "I've been asked how I coached Ben," Hannon says. "I left him alone. How're you going to improve somebody who shoots good golf day in and day out? Ben was the best young player I ever saw. When he was a freshman, he was like a senior in his development.
Crenshaw was 30 when he came home to Austin after the 1982 PGA. "A lot of people thought I wanted to quit the game," he says. "I wasn't about to do that. I'd never quit golf; I like it too much. But I knew it was going to take a long, long time to come out of this one."