Ben Crane traveled to England as an alternate and didn’t get in the British Open. But his trip wasn’t a waste, only motivation

July 21, 2014

HOYLAKE, England — Ben Crane is one of the most delightful, interesting and honest guys on Tour. I saw him at Hilton Head earlier this year, the week after his buddy Bubba Watson had won the Masters. (Man, does that seem like a long time ago.)

Bubba and Ben are members of that four-man boy band, the Golf Boys. They are also both active in the wonderful world of Bible study. Ben asked, “What do you think is the right way to bring up your relationship with God in your victory remarks?”

That is not a verbatim transcription of what he said—we were just talking on the side of the green—but that’s essentially what he said. I don’t know how he felt about Bubba’s post-game remarks. I know he loved the simple way Zach Johnson said his “goal was to glorify God” when he won the Masters on Easter Sunday in 2007.

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It was an interesting and unlikely conversation, to say the least, and Ben knows that I am more of a Saturday guy myself. We both agreed that nobody wants to hear someone say his god is better than your god, or that his god helped read a double-breaking, 30-foot putt that somehow found the bottom of the hole.

I asked Ben if he was planning to win a tournament anytime soon. He made a funny face. “My game’s so bad now, I’m not even close,” he said. He talked some about injuries and rehabbing from them and just generally being out of sorts. “My body’s not letting me make the swing I want to make.” He missed the cut.

He had been missing a lot of cuts. I later learned that he had been talking to his inner circle—his wife, Heather; his caddie Joel Stock, and a few others—about leaving the Tour. He missed three straight cuts after Hilton Head, too. It can get a guy down.

A quick aside about a member of Ben’s team: in 2012, I was interviewing Bill Clinton, who had taken over as the host of the Humana event, the old Bob Hope stop. He was talking about all the charitable works Tour players and their families do, and how he wanted his foundation and the tournament to support those causes.

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“I met a very interesting woman last night,” he said. It was a woman who had spoken to him about her involvement in the fight against human trafficking, which took her to Southeast Asia. He asked an aide, “What was that woman’s name?” He was insistent that I know the name. The aide called later: it was Heather Crane.

Aside II: Ben was a good high school golfer in Texas. He was not Jordan Spieth (before there was a Jordan Spieth). Crane was not widely recruited. He went to Baylor, which was not a good fit, and he didn’t know what he might do. A friend who was playing at Oregon urged Ben to come to Oregon, even though there was no scholarship, and no promise of one—or anything else. Crane got in his car, and he and his friend who made the call lived in a room the size of a closet for a year. That was Joel Stock, now his caddie. It was at Oregon that Ben met Heather. Life has weird twists.

Okay, back to Ben’s golf. In June, he won the Memphis stop. He had played a good last round at the Nelson, found a little something, had a 63 on Thursday in the Memphis heat and won wire-to-wire. “This has been a really tough year,” Crane said in victory. “I had to finally become okay with golf not being in the picture. I just felt like things were going in that direction and so I just got to the place where I just said, ‘Lord, if it’s not golf, I will still love you. If it is, that would be really fun. But I know you'll provide something else that will be just as meaningful.’”

Thursday night, after a long day at the office (we exaggerate), my distinguished colleague John Garrity and I slipped out for some evening golf. We headed from Royal Liverpool up the coast to another seaside links I knew nothing about, Wallasey Golf Club. Upon arrival, a little before 6 p.m., there on the first tee was Ben Crane, Joel Stock, and a big Titleist tour bag and two bottles of Davenports, a celebrated English beer.

Ben Crane

John Garrity

From left to right: Joel Stock, Ben Crane and Michael Bamberger at Wallasey Golf Club.

I knew Crane liked seaside golf, even if, as he told me for a 2011 story, he wasn’t very good at it. He posed in a kilt for that story and told me, in comic detail, about the many lousy rounds of British Open golf he had played. He said he was determined to get better at it. But when I saw him on the tee, I did a double take. After going 18 holes at Royal Liverpool, was he still looking for more golf?

“I was first alternate!” he said. He wasn’t in the field. “I waited for 10 hours for someone to drop out. Nobody dropped out! I said, ‘We didn’t come all this way to not play some links golf, so here we are!” Joel was playing out of Ben’s bag.

They had to be flat-out exhausted, but links golf will wake you up like nothing else. It had taken four flights and nearly 24 hours to get from Portland, Ore., to Liverpool. In any event, the two former Duck teammates wouldn’t be playing that many holes—a car was picking them up at a certain time that night—but they invited John and me to join them, and we were delighted to do so. John first wrote about Ben when he was a Tour rookie in 2002.

Augusta has a "win-and-you’re-in" policy for PGA Tour winners, but the British Open does not, and understandably so. (The U.S. Open doesn’t, either.) It seeks to have a field of the best players in the world and cannot show such favoritism to one tour.

Ben talked about his long day. A handful of alternates had already gotten in before Thursday, replacing guys like Charles Howell III, who chose not to use his exemption; 1989 champion golfer Mark Calcavecchia, whose travel plans fell apart; and 1996 champion Tom Lehman, who opted out in order to watch his oldest son, Thomas, play in a tournament. So Ben had reason for optimism. But he could not hit balls on the practice tee, because the journey from the driving range to the first tee took about seven minutes, and if he received a last-minute call that somebody could not go, Ben might not have enough time to get to the tee.

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“So I chipped, I putted, I ate, then I ate again,” he said.

Two years ago, when Ernie Els won at Royal Lytham, Crane was the second alternate, but he didn’t make the trip. That year, the second alternate got in. He’s regretted his decision ever since. It was part of his motivation in coming this year. He arrived in Liverpool early Thursday morning, so he never even got to play a practice round.

But he did get in five holes at Wallasey. Between sips of beer and some beautiful shots, he must have used the phrase, “How good is this?” four or five times. The course is an absolute delight.

Joel, as you might expect from a former college golfer, hit some beautiful shots, when he wasn’t lugging the enormous bag. Ben was trying his hardest on every shot. He wanted to know the distance to different bunkers, and hit a few second shots when he didn’t like the original one. He was having the time of his life.

Ben said he was amazed how people responded to his odyssey and to his odd spot. “Peter Dawson was so nice,” Ben said, referring to the chief executive of the R&A. He lauded Ben for his efforts and hard luck. Ben felt he had done nothing laudatory and had had no bad luck. He came because he wanted to play in the world’s oldest golf championship. Had he played better, he would have been in the field. His plan is to play better and get himself in next year, when the Open will be at St. Andrews.

Ben and Joe helped us find our wayward shots. When I hit a good but long pitch shot out of the rough with the grass growing towards the hole, Ben said, “You actually have to take something off that. Grass going with you, it launches the ball.”

The fifth at Wallasey is a gem, a par-3 that played about 160 yards into the wind off the Irish Sea, from an elevated tee. Since my abbreviated bag went from 7-iron to 5-hybrid, Ben lent me his 6-iron. It must be a good club; it yielded a rare greenie for your correspondent.

The pin was on the far left, with the breeze blowing right to left. Ten yards left of the pin: grassy dunes. Right of it: all the room in the world. Ben played a holding cut shot with a 7-iron. I asked if most players would hit a draw shot there and use the fat of the green; he said some would, but most would not. He dropped another ball and hit a sweeping draw with an 8-iron.

It’s funny. When I watch Ben play in the States, I think of him as a golfer with no curve on his shots at all. But here in the sea breeze he was curving every shot. The four of us were having a grand time. Ben asked me for my “Twitter handle.” I do not have a Twitter handle. But Ben does. He tweeted out our evening game.

The walk from the fifth tee to the fifth green takes you away from the clubhouse, and Ben and Joel had a car waiting for them. They headed back in after playing their tee shots. John and I said we would pick up their balls for safekeeping.

“You will be paid back for all this, karmically,” I said to Ben of his long trip only to be turned away. He smiled.

Up at the green, I picked up Ben’s golf balls. One of them was about 18 inches from the hole. A Titleist ProV1 with two black lines drawn on it with a marker. The lines were either some kind of alignment aid or a faith reminder. Maybe both.

Friday morning, Ben and Joel began the journey home. Ben is in the PGA Championship field next month. He’s sure of that.

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