Can it really be 15 years since Ben Crenshaw captured one of the most emotional victories in sports history at Augusta National? No one who saw “Gentle Ben” tap in on 18, drop his putter and double over sobbing, head in his hands, will ever forget the image: A man overwhelmed by winning his second Masters the same week he had buried his beloved mentor, Harvey Penick.
It has proved Crenshaw’s last professional win but far from his final triumph. Indeed, 1995 saw another historic Crenshaw moment: the debut of Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb. Designed by Crenshaw and longtime partner Bill Coore, it has proven one of the world’s finest and most influential courses. Today, Coore & Crenshaw Inc. have four of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. In 1999, Crenshaw captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., rallying his side to the biggest final-day comeback in the event’s history. The man knows drama.
Golf.com spoke to Crenshaw, 58, by phone from his office in his lifelong hometown of Austin, Texas.
How did you get started in golf?
My father was a lawyer and a good player. He introduced my older brother and I to the game when I was about 7 years old. We each got a putter and one other club. I got a mashie, which is a 5-iron, and my brother got a 3-iron. We started knocking the ball around.
Did the game come easily to you?
I don’t know about that, but I did enjoy it immediately. It was among the greatest things in my life that my teacher, Harvey Penick, looked after us. I enjoyed watching the older players, to see what they could do. My father had a regular game with a dozen players who could play the game very well, so I watched a lot of good golf growing up.
Bobby Jones became a hero of yours. Why?
When I got older, maybe 13, my dad and Harvey started to introduce a thought here and there that Bobby Jones had. Harvey encouraged me to read Bobby Jones, and about him, and later on so did my father. His thoughts about the game are extremely sound and full of common sense. And Jones did not just talk about expert players, but everyone’s golf, in an unbelievable way. The works he left us are magnificent.
What keeps you competing?
I’m enjoying the social aspect more now — being out on the Champions Tour and playing with people I learned the game with. Many are playing finer golf now than when we competed on the PGA Tour. I feel like I play well at times, although I’m not quite getting the job done. The level of play is astounding.
But you have remained competitive.
I’ve never been one to pound golf balls every day. It doesn’t interest me. But I still enjoy playing the game every good day here at the golf club (Austin Golf Club) we formed in 2000. I have other things going on, and I love pursuing architecture, but I feel like I’ve played enough to do well. It’s not such a void.
What’s been your biggest professional obstacle?
My temper got the best of me and held me back many times when I was younger. It still does! I wish I could have developed more of an even-keel attitude, more accepting of silly shots or poor shots.
Between professional golf and your design business, you’re not exactly fading into the sunset. Where does your work ethic come from?
It comes from the competitive aspect. Harvey always encouraged us to play with someone a little bit older and better. He wanted that competitive fire stoked.
What did you learn about mentoring from Harvey?
Harvey had to absolutely know the pupil before he would say anything. When a stranger came for a lesson, he’d have a cup of coffee with you and study every trait — from how fast you talked to what your gait was like. Everything. It was unbelievable.
What are your biggest accomplishments?
From a golf aspect, I’m thankful first to have the game in my life, and to have met the people I have through it. It’s added so much to my life. I’ve been lucky enough to have accomplished some wonderful things — the highest, of course, being the two Masters and the Ryder Cup. Golf has enabled me to study and attempt to learn a lot of different things. I’m also so lucky to work with Bill Coore. Personally, meeting my wife 24 years ago and having three wonderful girls, I could not be more fortunate.
You were a three-time NCAA Champion at the University of Texas and won your first PGA Tour event. But not everything came easily — you had five runner-up major finishes prior to winning The Masters in 1984, and were 0-8 in career playoffs on Tour.
I have an unblemished playoff record! (Laughs.) Like many players, I had been close many times before in major championships. I finally held things together and broke through. It was a great, great relief to me to win The Masters in 1984.
How did it compare to the famous win in 1995?
In 1984, I was going through a divorce. That was obviously very emotional. But I was playing well and felt whenever I went to Augusta that it was a familiar place I enjoyed so much. You have to play well, stay confident throughout the week, and have some nice things happen to you. In 1995, well, I’m still trying to figure out how I won. I only had five bogeys all week. I was always a player who had highs and lows.
To win that tournament on that occasion, mostly for my teacher whom we’d buried days before, it was just … unbelievable. People will always know that it was dedicated to someone who gave me a great appreciation and love for the game. It was so fulfilling in that sense. I can’t even tell you what it meant to me. It’s still a huge part of my life.
Talk about the emotions of returning to Augusta each year.
In the last month, I’ve been trying to figure out a couple of things to say to the champions. I’m sort of an unofficial host of [The Masters’ annual Champions] Dinner. I know they feel the same way I do. We’re all so fortunate to be in that room, and we all tried so hard to get in that room. It’s a time of great appreciation. We know a lot of other people could be in that room, but through good play and good fortune, there we are. The bottom line is that we can call ourselves champions there for the rest of our lives.
How do you want to be remembered in golf?
Oh gosh, I don’t know — maybe as a halfway nice person who studied golf. Just, “a golfer,” I guess.