This year the Open returns to Royal St. George's, in Sandwich, England. It is a return for Crane, too, who played in his first Open in 2003, when another Ben C. with three Tour wins—Ben Curtis—won the Open at St. George's. What a week that was on the Kentish coast. It was hot and dry, and Curtis, playing in the first major of his life, defeated Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by a stroke. Tiger Woods, contending, lost his opening tee shot on Sunday. Pink-bellied men were sunbathing on the course's grassy hillocks. Crane fell in love. That is, with Royal Cinque Ports, the timeless links down the road from St. George's where Crane played in a 36-hole qualifier.
"That's some place, Cinque Ports," Crane said. "The old clubhouse. Those bouncy fairways. Beautiful greens. You have the sea right there. People walking their dogs. Then I get to St. George's, and the fairways are like this." Crane raised his arms to form the angle of an Alpine mountain house. "Convex fairways. Hard to hit." Two rounds and he was done.
Three months earlier he had won his first PGA Tour event, the '03 BellSouth Classic near Atlanta, by four shots. "But Royal St. George's made me realize I wasn't that good," Crane said. There were shots he didn't have, and his mind needed training too. In golf, as in life, the mind always needs training. Thinking about his trip there when he got home, Crane realized that the fairways were convex for everybody but that only some players had accepted that.
He knows you cannot follow the herd and play a British Open well. (He doesn't talk, really, about winning. He talks about playing well.) The Open rewards independent thinking more than any other tournament. Jack Nicklaus, offering commentary on TV at the '95 British Open at the Old Course, couldn't believe how John Daly was playing the holes. Still, Long John, doing it his way, won. If you've seen Oh Oh Oh, you know that Ben Crane doesn't follow the herd. If you like the video, he's happy. If you don't, well—he likes it.
The theme of individuality is important to Crane, he explained at the Travelers, where he finished 59th. "My mother once said to me, 'Do you realize that we spend so much time worrying about what other people think about us when they're actually so busy thinking about themselves, they're not thinking about us at all?' " Those words were a game changer for Crane.
In '06, when the Open was at Royal Liverpool and the rough was wispy and brown, Crane made his one Open cut, finishing 10 shots behind Woods. He never saw a golfer hit so many good iron shots. "I saw Tiger hit a flagstick," Crane said. The thick, heavy, metal, British Open flagsticks. He remembers the clang.
Crane missed the cut last year when he caught the worst of the weather. He shot even par on Thursday. He shot two under going out on Friday. He made what he called a good double bogey on the par-3 11th, in a wind so heinous you could barely walk through it. He followed with double bogeys at 12 and 13 and finished with a 42. He was done.
But it was the previous year's Open, at Turnberry in '09, that Crane considers the most important tournament of his career. Crane's older brother, Tim, had flown from Portland to watch. Crane had a flat first round. Then came a flat front nine in his Friday round. Flatness continued for the first four holes of the back nine.
Heading to the 14th tee, Crane thought to himself, Tim didn't come all this way to see me miss a cut, and "those last five holes I played fearlessly," he said. He made two birdies, two pars and a closing bogey. He missed the cut by two.
When it was over, Tim commented on the two different golfers he had seen, a cautious one for 31 holes and a lively one for five. "Right there at Turnberry, Tim said to me, 'Are you playing in fear of this gift that God gave you? Because, dude, that was two different golfers out there.' In Biblical times they'd put a stake in the ground and say, 'From this stake we have turned.' And Tim said, 'I think this is your stake in the ground.' "