Ben Crenshaw has won two Masters, but with the stirring reception he enjoys at Augusta National each April, you'd swear he'd won 20. Perhaps that's because ol' Ben personifies the place. He's cordial and reserved; handsome and refined; and a bleeding-heart traditionalist enamored by the lore of golf history and the intricacies of course design. His soft Texas drawl hasn't hurt his appeal either. But there's more to golf than the Masters, and Crenshaw's career hasn't been all azaleas. He has a fierce temper that he admits cost him wins, an unpredictable swing that produced stretches of "horrendous" play, and with 19 Tour wins, he never became the Next Jack, as many had predicted he would. Still, a couple of green jackets and one magical Sunday in Brookline, Mass., have earned Crenshaw his own chapter in the history books he so reveres. A quarter century after his first Masters win, the 57-year-old reflects on losing his swing, finding a friend in George W. Bush and how Augusta National has lost its mojo.
This year will mark your 38th Masters. How many more do you have in you?
They're dwindling fast. With the course changes, it's a chore. Anybody past the age of 45, the odds of them competing and playing well are pretty slim.
But three years ago you were in the mix through 36 holes. A tiny part of you doesn't believe you can still contend?
No. The course has pretty well passed me by. I hate to say that, but it's just too much.
The course is obviously longer than ever, but it seems to be more penal, too. The last couple of Masters have been a grind.
There's no question you can't take as many liberties as you used to. It was a different golf course when they built it. It absolutely changed people's perspective about architecture in this country. [Bobby] Jones was after an inland, rolling golf course that had the same principles and elements of St. Andrews, which is supremely strategic. In other words, a player was not prescribed as to where to hit the ball. You were left to think your way around the course. That the course has gotten narrower takes some of that away. But in this era, where players routinely "pitch" the ball over 300 yards on the fly, I can understand the argument saying you have to constrict the course. Let's just say it: everything in design today is being done to defend scores.
How specifically has the strategy of playing Augusta National evolved since your prime?
Back then you could hit the ball a lot of different places and still recover — or fail — spectacularly, right in front of everybody. But it made you try on almost every shot. One of the joys of watching Augusta for so many years was watching a player extricate himself from some spot or try something daring in a tight situation — or, as a leader, knowing that you were never safe. A leader now is just trying to hang on. There's so much golf course, it's hard to take chances. That's the era we're in. Almost every golf course is almost floundering to try and test these guys who are possessed with so much power and so many tools.
Do you resent older pros like Gary Player who continue to play?
I don't. It should be left to the player to know when he can or can't play, doesn't want to play, or doesn't feel like he needs to play.
Do you believe Augusta National should strive to be more inclusive?
It will in its time. I firmly believe that.
But you don't feel strongly one way or the other about its exclusion of female members?
I defend the rights of a private club [to be private] under the First Amendment. I think that [right] should be held intact. They'll make decisions on their own accord.
Before you won the '84 Masters, you were in a slump. You described yourself as a 'basket case.'
I've had two or three periods like that, where you're lost with swing thoughts and mechanics. You start feeling that whatever you try, you know it may be some sort of panacea but it may not solve the problem. You can't play golf that way. The most difficult thing is when you get out on a tough golf course and you're trying to figure out a way to play it but you don't trust your game. It's always a series of ups and downs but I was very much in a down period there.
The highlight of your final round in '84 was the 60-footer you made at No. 10. Your dad, Charlie, later said of that round: 'I'm glad the old friendly hand was on Ben. It just guided him through there.' Did you feel an external force at work?
That's a wonderful way to put it. I have always believed in fate and destiny. The golf in major championships is so difficult and so high strung and players are trying so hard to win that some little unexpected turn can change everything. Mentally, you can't believe what a lift that gives you. You feel like you can get through this thing. I think some of those things are unexplainable and are part of the fascination of golf and sports.
As a top amateur, you were tagged as the next Jack Nicklaus. Did you feel pressure to excel?
I did, but I was young. I was just playing. I was trying to learn courses. I knew and had become accustomed to really fine competition. I had inward pressure because I felt like I could do better in spots. My career was really good at times and horrendous at times. My counterpart Tom Kite — I don't think there are too many players in golf history like him who have gotten better each year. He's never had down periods like I have.
Do you envy Kite for that?
Well, yeah, I admire that about Tom. He's been extremely diligent for so many years. You just can't believe how hard he works to this day.
You were plagued by a foot injury through much of your career. Remind us how you hurt it.
I'm still paying for that injury. I kicked an oil drum at Colonial in Fort Worth in about 1980. After three-putting the 16th green on the third day when I was in contention, I went over where nobody was and there was this giant oil drum full of trash. I kicked it really hard, and I just crumpled my foot. I could barely play the next day. I kept playing with it and it just kind of droned on. I finally had to have surgery on it in 1998.
Your second Masters win, in '95, was emotional because you won it a week after the death of your mentor, Harvey Penick. How did that win compare to your first?
I had a great sense of relief in '84, but '95 was surreal. I played so well that week. I had no extemporaneous thoughts about my mechanics because I had hit on something with the help of Carl Jackson [Crenshaw's longtime caddie]. Carl told me to move the ball back in my stance and take a tighter turn in my shoulders. I started hitting the ball right in the middle of the clubface, and my confidence grew just like that.
When did you hear that Harvey had died?
I was at Augusta, on the Sunday night before the tournament. I was having dinner with Jack Stephens [then the Augusta National chairman], and Tom Kite called me. I had to make a plan to go back. We knew it was going to happen sometime, but I had always hoped not to be away from Austin when it happened.
You must have figured you wouldn't be able to focus on golf that week.
I know, but after the funeral service, we accepted it as well as we could. I remember when I got back to Augusta on Wednesday I wanted to try this little deal again. I continued hitting the ball well on those couple of swing thoughts. That first day I posted a good score , and that helped me quite a bit. I don't know what possessed me to play so well that week — I still don't know. But it lasted most of the week, and I will always be so happy that I got to do something for Harvey's memory.
You were a believer in fate long before that week. Where did that belief originate?
I read about Bobby Jones as a kid and about what O.B. Keeler [Jones' biographer] said about the Grand Slam year. He said the two putts that Jones holed late in the match against Cyril Tolley [at the British Amateur] were just like fixed orbs going to the hole. Jones talked about it, too. He said he had a feeling that they'd go in before he hit them. Those things have an appeal to me. But you need to believe it for it to happen. You need to believe in yourself.
You still carry Little Ben, the fabled blade putter your dad bought for you when you were a kid. Ever thought about upgrading your technology?
I want to retire it so bad, but it still hits good putts. It really does. It has a certain feel to it. I've never putted with any other type of putter. It has served me on slow and fast greens. I've got 15 varieties of [Wilson] 8802s and Arnold Palmers, but they don't hit it like that one. I've convinced myself. I've kind of gone crazy over it.
It's been reshafted a few times, right?
I broke it on the last day of the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village. I three-putted the 16th green and for some reason I had the putterhead in my hand walking over to 17. There was a buckeye, a nut, on the ground, and I just tapped it. The shaft snapped in the very middle. I've hit my clubs a lot harder on the ground without them breaking. It was a big surprise.
'Gentle Ben' sounds like a misnomer.
Yeah, I have some temper. It cost me a lot in tournaments. I can think of many situations where I completely threw myself out of it. I was one of those that would let my temper linger a few holes. You just can't let that happen. You've got to bottle it somehow. I always had a lot of emotion.
Do you ever wish you had a tougher nickname?
Ben Wright would always say, "You violent, violent person. You are 'Violent Ben.'" [Laughs.]
When you captained the Ryder Cup team in 1999, you publicly scolded Tiger Woods and David Duval, among others, after they argued that the PGA of America should, at the very least, make a donation to the American players' chosen charities. Duval later criticized you, saying, '[Crenshaw] talked about the purity of the Ryder Cup, and what he did with all that purity is make a bunch of money off the thing. He wrote a book about it; he had his clothing company involved.' Did that bother you?
I've read that many times. David and I, I don't think we'd see eye to eye on anything. He's well entitled to his opinion.
But his point about you profiting…
Well, captains, you know… [pauses]. He can make all the assertions that he wants.
So you don't see his point?
No. He made those comments before and after [the Ryder Cup]. It's just a difference in opinion. But I don't think David Duval would understand another viewpoint.
With your squad down 10-6 that year, you closed your Saturday evening press conference by saying: 'I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That's all I'm gonna say.' Some people thought you were nuts.
I don't know how it happened, but I swear to goodness I just thought there was something about The Country Club that was going to take care of us. And darned if it didn't. We were playing well to a man. I didn't think the point total told the story. We were due for some putts to go in. I thought if we could see some things happen, we could get back in it.
Deep down, you truly believed that?
Yeah, I did. When we saw the lineups, I thought we had a real chance if we started well early. I've never seen such explosive golf out of a bunch of guys. Balls started going in and started changing the emotion of the matches.
George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, gave your team a pep talk. He's a close friend, right?
I've been friends with him since 1980. Very good friends. He's as good to his friends as anybody. People will find out some things about him some day.
What kinds of things?
Lots of things. He's a very misunderstood person. It'll come out.
But not in this interview?
Believe me, I could talk to you for about four hours about what he has done. He has been consistent and diligent in protecting this country. It's amazing what he's been through. It would wither anybody.
It sounds as if you've taken his bad press personally.
Well, he's a friend. People love to put people in boxes, but they forget the outreach he had here as governor. He had a way of getting people together. When he steps away, we'll see some things that he's done and his reasons why. People will understand him better.
In 2006, you were in your own political fight when you and a group of other parents at your daughters' Episcopal school took exception to a 12th-grade English teacher who had Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two gay cowboys, on her curriculum. What was your beef?
I just didn't think it was right. I don't think the youth of America has to know everything when they're 10 years old. I've got three daughters [now 21, 16 and 11], and I'm raising them the best way I can. There are issues every 30 minutes that [parents] have to decide. I've only got one chance to be a father.
How difficult was it taking a public stance on such a hot-button issue?
It wasn't difficult. There were a lot of ramifications, but I didn't think it was going the right way.
Do your daughters still attend that school?
No, I pulled them out.
Your design team is working on a course in Tasmania, which you've yet to visit. Not being there must be tough.
It's the first time, and yes, it's very difficult. Truth be known, though, our team is so good that they'll do just as good a job without me. Bill [Coore, Crenshaw's design partner] has been such a blessing in my life. I hope to get down there, but it won't be many times.
And the course developers are okay with that?
Yeah, apparently they are, because Bill's talked to them ad nauseum about it. I just can't, you know… [he chokes up]. There are so many misconceptions about the business. You don't want to delegate yourself out. That's just not the way that we do things. It takes large blocks of time in order to do what we want to do to a golf course.
Why are you so taken by traditional design?
It comes down to enjoyment and not getting beat over the head constantly with things that golfers can and can't do. You want to offer some hope. To me, St. Andrews is still the most fascinating course in the world. The ways you can play that course are infinite. It's like a giant outdoor crossword puzzle.
You once wrote, 'The game many, many times leaves us feeling we are such little creatures, weak and meek as a newborn lamb.' Even Masters champions feel that way?
It's a very emotional game. You feel very feeble. I don't care who you are. Tournament golfers, we don't feel any differently than average golfers. You come to grief. And other times you just feel fantastic. That's the game. It's a kaleidoscope of emotions.