Ben Crenshaw has won two Masters, but with the stirring reception he enjoys at Augusta National each April, you'd swear he'd won 20. Perhaps that's because ol' Ben personifies the place. He's cordial and reserved; handsome and refined; and a bleeding-heart traditionalist enamored by the lore of golf history and the intricacies of course design. His soft Texas drawl hasn't hurt his appeal either. But there's more to golf than the Masters, and Crenshaw's career hasn't been all azaleas. He has a fierce temper that he admits cost him wins, an unpredictable swing that produced stretches of "horrendous" play, and with 19 Tour wins, he never became the Next Jack, as many had predicted he would. Still, a couple of green jackets and one magical Sunday in Brookline, Mass., have earned Crenshaw his own chapter in the history books he so reveres. A quarter century after his first Masters win, the 57-year-old reflects on losing his swing, finding a friend in George W. Bush and how Augusta National has lost its mojo.
This year will mark your 38th Masters. How many more do you have in you?
They're dwindling fast. With the course changes, it's a chore. Anybody past the age of 45, the odds of them competing and playing well are pretty slim.
But three years ago you were in the mix through 36 holes. A tiny part of you doesn't believe you can still contend?
No. The course has pretty well passed me by. I hate to say that, but it's just too much.
The course is obviously longer than ever, but it seems to be more penal, too. The last couple of Masters have been a grind.
There's no question you can't take as many liberties as you used to. It was a different golf course when they built it. It absolutely changed people's perspective about architecture in this country. [Bobby] Jones was after an inland, rolling golf course that had the same principles and elements of St. Andrews, which is supremely strategic. In other words, a player was not prescribed as to where to hit the ball. You were left to think your way around the course. That the course has gotten narrower takes some of that away. But in this era, where players routinely "pitch" the ball over 300 yards on the fly, I can understand the argument saying you have to constrict the course. Let's just say it: everything in design today is being done to defend scores.
How specifically has the strategy of playing Augusta National evolved since your prime?
Back then you could hit the ball a lot of different places and still recover — or fail — spectacularly, right in front of everybody. But it made you try on almost every shot. One of the joys of watching Augusta for so many years was watching a player extricate himself from some spot or try something daring in a tight situation — or, as a leader, knowing that you were never safe. A leader now is just trying to hang on. There's so much golf course, it's hard to take chances. That's the era we're in. Almost every golf course is almost floundering to try and test these guys who are possessed with so much power and so many tools.
Do you resent older pros like Gary Player who continue to play?
I don't. It should be left to the player to know when he can or can't play, doesn't want to play, or doesn't feel like he needs to play.
Do you believe Augusta National should strive to be more inclusive?
It will in its time. I firmly believe that.
But you don't feel strongly one way or the other about its exclusion of female members?
I defend the rights of a private club [to be private] under the First Amendment. I think that [right] should be held intact. They'll make decisions on their own accord.
Before you won the '84 Masters, you were in a slump. You described yourself as a 'basket case.'
I've had two or three periods like that, where you're lost with swing thoughts and mechanics. You start feeling that whatever you try, you know it may be some sort of panacea but it may not solve the problem. You can't play golf that way. The most difficult thing is when you get out on a tough golf course and you're trying to figure out a way to play it but you don't trust your game. It's always a series of ups and downs but I was very much in a down period there.
The highlight of your final round in '84 was the 60-footer you made at No. 10. Your dad, Charlie, later said of that round: 'I'm glad the old friendly hand was on Ben. It just guided him through there.' Did you feel an external force at work?