This story first appeared in the April 17, 1995, issue of Sports Illustrated.
So how would you explain it? Balls trickling left down ridges, when any physicist would turn purple telling you they’ve got to go right. Putts diving into corners of holes when you know they are supposed to slide six feet past on green Formica. A ball on Saturday that had a one-way ticket for a double-bogey bunker at number 8, smacking dead into the sand and then, for no reason at all, bounding out.
“Another Harvey bounce,” Julie Crenshaw would say to her husband, Ben, that night. Ben would smile yes.
And what about the caddie? What are the odds on that? Ben Crenshaw had come to Augusta for the Masters playing uglier than a presidential threesome. Three missed cuts in his last four starts. Hadn’t broken 70 in two months. Sixty-ninth on the PGA Tour in putting. Sixty-ninth? Ben Crenshaw? But then on the Tuesday before the tournament, his longtime Augusta caddie, Carl Jackson, a man who would need two woofer implants just to be considered quiet, said out of the blue, “Put the ball a little bit back in your stance, Ben. And you got to turn your shoulders more.”
After hitting four balls, Crenshaw was suddenly striping it again. Four balls! “I’ve never had a confidence transformation like that in my life,” said Crenshaw.
Good thing, too, because for the 1984 Masters champion, practice was over. The next morning at 7:30 Crenshaw flew 950 miles to attend the funeral of Harvey Penick, the tiny and frail former head pro of Austin Country Club. In a downpour. Pure sentiment, but Crenshaw is 99.4 percent sentiment. This is a guy who watches Beauty and the Beast with his daughters and ends up crying himself. His father, Charlie, is also like that. Charlie will cry at a Thanksgiving toast or a decent Southwestern Bell ad. So three days after the 90-year-old Penick, the man who first put a golf club in Crenshaw’s six-year-old hands and the only coach he ever had, died on Sunday, April 2, Crenshaw and Tom Kite, another of Penick’s pupils from Austin, flew home and carried a very light box and their own heavy hearts to the grave.
After the service Penick’s son, Tinsley, took his father’s old wooden Gene Sarazen putter and saved it for Crenshaw. It was the same putter that, on the last Sunday in March, Penick, lying in a hospital bed in his bedroom at home, had commanded Crenshaw to get from the garage. The man who wrote The Little Red Book checked Crenshaw’s grip the same way he had been checking it since Ben was a child. Then he said, “Just trust yourself.”
When Crenshaw flew back to Augusta on Wednesday night he was tired and drained of tears and emotion and energy. But when he teed off in the tournament the next morning, all heaven broke loose. “There was this calmness to him all week that I have never seen before,” said Julie.
Said Ben, “It was kind of like I felt this hand on my shoulder, guiding me along.”
Crenshaw has always been a “feel” player, not only because of his hands but also because of his emotions. When things are going badly, he bleeds — he kicked a trash can a few years ago after a three-putt and may need surgery on that foot sometime soon — and his game unravels. However, when things start going well, Crenshaw lets his heart follow. The swing gets sweet, and the best putting stroke in history starts pouring golf balls into holes like little white rivers.
Moreover, every break went his way. Disaster never got within a three-wood of him. He made only five bogeys and not one double bogey. On Sunday, tied for the lead, he hit a terrible drive on the par-5 2nd hole. The ball struck a tree and bounced into the fairway, pretty as you please. “Look, there’s Harvey,” Julie said to a friend. Crenshaw birdied the hole.
What’s weird is that this did not start out as Crenshaw’s week at all. The first two days of the tournament belonged to the 19-year-old dervish known as Tiger Woods, the U.S. Amateur champ playing in his first Masters and only the fourth black American to compete in the event. He changed the face of the tournament, literally. This year you did not have to look for white caddie overalls to find a black face. They were everywhere in Woods’s teeming galleries, and they were there to take a sip of golf history, to see the baby steps of the first potentially great black golfer on the most important golf course in America.
“My god, I had no idea how long he was,” said none other than Jack Nicklaus. In practice rounds Woods was 30 yards longer than such short knockers as Greg (Shark) Norman and Fred (Boom-Boom) Couples, who have been known to blast golf balls from here to Peachtree Plaza. On Friday at the par-5 13th, when his three-wood tee ball got stuck behind a huge pine to the right of the fairway, he cut a two-iron from 250 yards over Rae’s Creek, over the flag and into the back bunker. On the 500-yard par-5 15th, he hit either an eight-or a nine-iron for his second shot in all four rounds. On the 405-yard uphill par-4 18th on Sunday, he had a sand wedge to the hole.
Somebody asked Long John Daly who was longer now, him or this 150-pound rocket launcher. Daly said, “I guess we’d probably be about even.” Wrong. Woods’s average driving distance was 311.1 yards, the longest in the tournament and 14 yards more than Daly’s.
Too bad Woods was almost as long with his short irons as he was with his driver. He flew more greens than Delta. If somebody will just sneak into this kid’s bag some night and uploft each of his irons three degrees, he’ll be scary good here. Still, Woods’s first two rounds at Augusta were respectable — matching even-par 72s, nine shots behind the midway leader, Jay Haas. And he earned honors as low amateur; indeed, he was the only one of the five amateurs even to sniff the cut.
Through it all — all the hype, the huge crowds, the massive press conferences — he chilled. He walked in the middle of the fairways with his hands in his pockets and his head down, as though he were on his way to Monday, nine o’clock, history. When he was asked if he was awed or thrilled or struck dumb by Augusta National, he shrugged and said, “It’s just another tournament to me.”
But, but, but what about Magnolia Lane? “It was just a short drive. I thought it would be longer,” he said. But, but, but what about staying in the Crow’s Nest? “I don’t know. I came in late, threw my bag down and went right to sleep.”
That had a few green jackets’ jowls shaking, but how else could he be? Why should he genuflect at the clubhouse door when so many black golfers have been banned from walking through it? How could he pretend to cherish a place that went out of its way to keep Charlie Sifford out? Or have goose bumps in the company of men who only last week inducted the second black member ever into the club? In a town where his parents woke up on Friday morning to find a window of their rental car shattered? He’s supposed to turn cartwheels on the veranda?
What no one knew was that at night Woods was sneaking around the clubhouse, opening doors and wandering into the champions’ locker room. “To tell you the truth,” he finally said on Sunday, “I had the time of my life.”
Nicklaus has played in exactly 36 more Masters than Woods, but this year’s had to be his weirdest. He knocked two middle irons into the same par-4 hole — the 5th — for two eagles, a feat never accomplished by anybody else in Masters history or anywhere else on earth, for that matter.
His first, a 180-yard five-iron, dived into the hole on the fly on Thursday to help him to a 67, only one shot behind the first-day leaders, Phil Mickelson, defending champ Jose Maria Olazabal and David Frost. The second came on Saturday, when Nicklaus “missed” a seven-iron, 12 feet right of where he had aimed, and the ball proceeded to run into the cotton-picking jar. For the week Nicklaus’s shooting percentage from 540 feet away into a hole not much bigger than a tuna tin was exactly 50 percent, or almost as good as Shaq’s from the free throw line.
By Saturday night Nicklaus was out of it (he finished 35th), but almost nothing else had been settled. The big scoreboard didn’t have enough room for all the names that should have been up there. Davis Love III was at seven under, only three shots behind the leaders, Crenshaw and Brian Henninger. Was there a better story than Love’s? The man who the previous week in New Orleans had made the last possible putt in the last possible tournament to win the last possible ticket to Augusta? The same Love for whom Penick had clapped twice only hours before his death, upon hearing that Love was making that ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike effort? Love, too, had wanted to go to the funeral, but a close friend told him that he should take the time to prepare, to get a little rest, that that’s what Mr. Penick would have wanted. That friend was Crenshaw.
Would the winner be Henninger, a man so small and Webelo-faced that once, at the Western Open, he drove up to valet parking in his courtesy car, and Sue Price, Nick’s wife, got in the front seat, thinking her driver had arrived?
Or would the winner be one of five guys one shot back: Steve Elkington, trying to take home a present for his two-week-old daughter; 24-year-old Mickelson, looking to begin the run of majors that everyone has predicted for him; Couples; Haas; or even Scott Hoch, who was attempting to get back the unforgiving two-footer he missed to lose the 1989 Masters? Wait a minute. Curtis Strange was only two strokes behind, the Shark three. In all, 23 players, representing nine green jackets, were crammed into a seven-shot bunch.
On Sunday, however, Henninger’s training wheels came off with bogeys at 2 and 3. Elkington made a mess of things with bogeys at 9 and 11. Mickelson’s potential crashed and burned with a 73, and Hoch faltered with the same score. Couples three-jacked 11 and 12 and never resurfaced. Haas dumped one into the water at 15 and bogeyed 16. All of which left three players in a green-jacket raffle — the red-hot pairing of Love and Norman, and Crenshaw, who was playing 45 minutes behind them. They were tied at 12 under.
Then Crenshaw rolled in the prettiest little putt you ever saw at 13 for a birdie and a one-shot lead. On the next hole he punched a shut-faced eight-iron from under a tree that kicked obediently off a mound and to within 12 feet of the hole, an impossible, indescribable piece of luck and skill. In the gallery Julie said to herself, Harvey bounce. At home in Austin, 81-year-old Charlie Crenshaw could feel himself starting to well up. In the pro shop at Austin Country Club, Tinsley Penick, Harvey’s successor as head pro, watched on his 16-inch set.
Crenshaw missed his 12-footer at 14, but up ahead something odd was happening to Norman and Love, who together had made 11 birdies and not a single bogey in 15 holes. Faced with an easy tee shot at the par-3 16th, Love carried his seven-iron too far. “Sometimes you wonder if things are meant to be,” he would say later. “That shot went four or five yards farther than I should be able to hit and stayed on top of that hill. No way it should stay up there.” He three-putted. On the par-4 17th hole Norman had the easiest 106-yard sand wedge you could want, blew it 40 feet to the left of the hole and then three-putted. What in the world was going on?
Norman was done (he would tie for third), but Love came back with a birdie at 17 and a 66 that tied him with Crenshaw at 13 under. Then he had the pure joy of going to Jones Cabin to watch history’s finest putter have a go at maybe history’s finest greens.
“I just had this strong feeling the whole week,” Crenshaw said later. “I never had a week like this, where I really enjoyed playing golf the whole week.” Just trust yourself.
Maybe Harvey Penick has learned to channel golf tips through Augusta caddies, or maybe Crenshaw went out and won all by himself. However it happened, Crenshaw birdied the next two holes — the 16th from five feet and the 17th from 13 — for a two-stroke cushion. In the gallery Julie Crenshaw’s makeup started to run a little, and back in Austin, Charlie Crenshaw soaked his sleeves with tears, and Tinsley Penick held a celebration for two with only one person in the room.
When Crenshaw bogeyed the 18th for a 68 and a 14-under-par, one-stroke victory, he bent over at the waist and held his face in his hands and cried. Then he came out of the scoring tent and held Julie’s face in his hands, and they both cried. Then he hugged his sobbing brother, Charlie, and everybody cried. All in all, you would’ve loved to have had a piece of the Kleenex concession.
“I believe in fate,” said Crenshaw when it was all over. “I don’t know how it happened. I don’t.”
Love, does. “I just had this feeling all week that this was going to happen,” he said. “Either way, one of Harvey’s boys was going to win.” For his trouble, Love gets the discomfort of knowing that his 13-under 275 was the lowest score not to win the Masters.
Sunday night closed with the Crenshaws eating dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse while the Gatlin Brothers serenaded them from the porch. That was as good a way as any to end the three most unforgettable consecutive Sundays in Ben Crenshaw’s life. A lesson. A death. A championship. It’s funny how things work out. A little man spends his whole life trying to teach you his grip, and then you find out you have been in it all the while.