With his marriage dissolving, Ben Crenshaw went out and won his first green jacket

With his marriage dissolving, Ben Crenshaw went out and won his first green jacket

In 1984, Ben Crenshaw won his first Masters. Thirty years later — where did that go? — he’s still sorting through that mystery-theater week. His country-music buddies, the Gatlin Brothers, were staying with him. He and his wife, Polly, who for nearly a decade made mighty contributions to the Tour’s sparkly life, had decided to divorce. She spent that week on a 67-foot Morgan in the Caribbean. Crenshaw opened with a 67. On Sunday, he shot 68, and won by two over his pal Tom Watson. Tom and Linda, Ben and Polly: How many heavy-forked dinners did that glamorous foursome log? But none that week. Or since.

When word of Ben’s Augusta win made it to Polly’s floating party off the coast of St. Barts, she refused to believe it. The days she had hiked the Augusta National hills in Ben’s wake! The nights she had listened to Ben prattle on about Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie! And they split up and he just goes out and wins the thing? How’s that?

These poet-players do inexplicable things. In 1995, Crenshaw, his game in tatters, buried his golfing father, Harvey Penick, on Masters Wednesday. That Sunday he won his second green coat. For the first six months of 1975, Crenshaw was playing like a roadside cow. (Eighteen events, two low-wattage top 10s.) Then at the U.S. Open, on the hideously difficult No. 3 course at Medinah, he finished a shot out of a playoff. The following week, he married Polly.

Polly Crenshaw! Today, you can’t look up a score for Jimmy Walker on your favorite golf website without wading through pictures of Paulina Gretzky and Amanda Dufner. But the truth is that there will never be another Tour wife like Polly Crenshaw. It’s not just that she was unspeakably beautiful. (Christie Brinkley, in her SI Swimsuit Issue prime, if you need a visual.) She was so young. “Jailbait,” as Bruce Devlin would remind Crenshaw. Ben Crenshaw and Polly Speno were married within a month of her graduation from Alexander Hamilton High in Elmsford, N.Y. Polly — supermarket cashier, homecoming queen — had just turned 18. Ben was 23 and a national figure. He had already played in 49 Tour events as a pro, victorious in the first of them, a Longhorn winning the Texas Open. No couple in America had better hair.

If you saw Polly Crenshaw in the disco era, she got stamped on your brain. At last year’s British Open, Tom Watson recalled how he celebrated his 1980 win at Muirfield: He and Ben and their wives slipped onto the course in the gloaming to play a few holes with antique equipment, “Polly Crenshaw aerating the greens with her four-inch heels.” Against a quote like that, no Instagram photo has a chance.

As Bob Dylan cannot explain his lyrics, Ben Crenshaw cannot explain his golf. In the songbook of his life, you’ll find the rugged courses he’s built with Bill Coore, the titles he won and didn’t, the dripping-syrup putting stroke, a Wilson 8802 dangling from his hands. His captaincy at the 1999 Ryder Cup was either inspired or nutty or both, but when he kissed the Country Club’s 17th green it wasn’t for the cameras.

He married young the first time and that one went nine years with no children. His relationship with both Polly and golf was about the same: tempestuous and exciting. From the start, it was a threesome, Polly and Ben and golf. He was a young Tour player and husband when he told a reporter, “There are not too many single golfers who have really been successful.” The second time, in ’85, he married a girl out of a Beach Boys song, Julie Forrest. They have three daughters together, all in their Sunday best when Dad was inducted into the golf Hall of Fame, in 2002.

Polly Crenshaw Price, mother of a 27-year-old environmentalist, says she hasn’t had a drink, or a wake-me-up line of coke, in over 20 years now. She sells real estate in Austin and works as a personal trainer. She looks…fabulous. She was just 17 when she had her first date with Ben Crenshaw, a Saturday-night clubhouse dinner during the 1974 Westchester Classic. Ben’s mother had recently died. Polly’s father had brought her to the course for a Tuesday practice round. You don’t even want to know what she was wearing. Before long, the Tour became her family, Tom Weiskopf playing the role of madcap uncle.

Forty years ago, a golf prodigy called Gentle Ben fell for a teenager called Polly. Ten years later, that golfer won the tournament of his boyhood dreams, with Polly 1,800 miles away. “I felt free,” Ben Crenshaw said the other day, remembering Augusta 1984. There’s surely a whole world in his insight, but as it takes two to tango, emancipation is a group act, too. Anyway, these stir-your-blood women, do they ever really disappear?