Ben Crenshaw Bids Farewell to Augusta National in His Final Masters

April 1, 2015

The first leg of Texas swing is a passing storm — two weeks on the calendar, three weeks in theory. The Texas Open was last week; the Houston Open is this week. Then comes the Masters, a tournament historically dominated by Texans, though it’s been a while.

Ben Crenshaw was the last Texan to win at Augusta, but that was 20 years ago. Next week he’s playing in his final Masters. With Crenshaw’s knack for cosmic convergence, nobody should be surprised to see a Texan — namely Patrick Reed (birthplace: San Antonio) or Jordan Spieth (Dallas) — break this unprecedented Texas oh-fer.

Golfers from the Lone Star State used to own the Masters. Byron Nelson won in ’37 and ’42. Ralph Guldahl won in ’39 and Jimmy Demaret in ’40, ’47 and ’50. Ben Hogan won in ’51 and ’53. Jackie Burke won in ’56. Charlie Coody won in ’71. Crenshaw won in ’84 and again 11 years later. The great state of Texas, a country onto itself, is overdue. For ’15, also keep an eye on Ryan Palmer, native son of Amarillo. As for Jimmy Walker, he’s a Texan by choice (birthplace: Oklahoma City), so put him on the list with an asterisk.

Crenshaw, 63, is more of a course architect than a player these days. His stroke average on the senior tour this year is over 80. He will most likely be done by Friday afternoon at Augusta. But his putting excellence made him one of the most accomplished players the National has ever seen, and he still has his trademark flowing putting stroke, like he’s painting a barn on a hot summer day, a stroke the likes of which you never see anymore. He was the low amateur in the ’72 and ’73 tournaments, turned pro later in ’73 and has never missed a Masters since playing in his first. He’ll finish with 43 appearances. Gary Player has played in the most, with 52. (There’s a record that might never be broken.) Between ’76 and ’95, Crenshaw had 11 top-10 finishes at Augusta. Jack Nicklaus has 22. (There’s a record even less likely to be broken.) As an amateur and as a young pro — Crenshaw won the first tournament he played as a pro, the ’73 Texas Open — he was often called the Next Nicklaus. There will never be another Nicklaus, but Crenshaw did have a career that culminated with his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Crenshaw is unique. He played his professional career with the spirit of an amateur, with the spirit of Bobby Jones, Augusta’s cofounder. If there’s anybody on Tour today who is anything like that, it’s Spieth. You never get the feeling that he’s all about the money. That thumbs up he gave to Reed after he played a gorgeous bunker shot in their playoff in Tampa a couple of weeks ago was out of the Crenshaw playbook. Spieth, of course, won.

As for Crenshaw’s cosmic convergence, it really is, as the kids say, a thing. He played in his first USGA event, the boys’ junior, in 1968 at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He was smitten by the course, the ambiance, the history. Over time, he became a serious student of golf history, and he can cite all the particulars of how Francis Ouimet beat Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club. In ’99 at Brookline, Crenshaw was the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team when it staged a staggering Sunday comeback. The ghost of Ouimet was hovering that week, just as the ghost of Harvey Penick, the revered Austin Country Club pro and Crenshaw’s teacher, was hovering when Crenshaw won at Augusta in ’95, at 43 and with his game in tatters.

If you believe in Crenshaw and his psychic connections, Spieth is the most likely recipient of his good vibes. Spieth — who, like Crenshaw, played collegiately at Texas — recently told The Augusta Chronicle that he’d fill out his dream foursome with three Texans: Hogan, Nelson and Crenshaw. Spieth, who was second at the Texas Open, led early in the final round at Augusta last year. At 20. He’s playing in Houston. The kid can’t get enough golf. Reed is playing too. The golf gods like that.

You don’t hear modern players talk much about the golf gods, but it was a regular thing for Crenshaw. When he won in ’95, he used the word “miracles” and talked about divine inspiration. He’ll forever be a fixture at the Masters and the champions dinner, a get-together established by Hogan. As an architect, he’ll be an important figure for years to come. He and his partner, Bill Coore, oversaw the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, site of last year’s U.S. Open. Crenshaw just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He played with Tianlang Guan when the 14-year-old from China made the cut at the 2013 Masters.

A lot of what has made Crenshaw’s career so special is his focus on others — his caddie, Carl Jackson; writers he counted as friends, including Charles Price and Herb Wind; architects like Alister MacKenzie and Seth Raynor; long-dead players such as Jones and Ouimet. It’s one reason why Crenshaw has endured as a figure in the game. If Spieth is contending on Sunday, a good guess is that Crenshaw will be nearby.

Last year at the Masters, a bunch of old guys made appearances on the leader board: Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Miguel Angel Jimenez. Crenshaw was not one of them. He shot 83 and 85, but he wasn’t moaning. He looked at the names he’s known for decades and said, “It’s wonderful.”

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