2005: Masters - Crenshaw cherishes Augusta moments

We see Ben Crenshaw burying his face in his hands. We watch caddie Carl Jackson’s strong hands reach down to steady him as he finally lets go of his emotions and cries.

We somehow know Harvey Penick’s hand is resting on Crenshaw’s shoulder.

Has it really been a decade since that Sunday afternoon? Since that mystical week when Crenshaw transformed the pain of losing his longtime teacher into his second Masters victory? And his last win, period?

It has.

Oh, there was that other magical Sunday in 1999 when Crenshaw made us believe in fate once again – this time at The Country Club in Brookline – when he captained his U.S. Ryder Cup team to the biggest comeback in the event’s history. He had that feeling Saturday night that just about everyone outside the U.S. team room dismissed. Then Justin Leonard’s 45-foot putt slammed into the back of the hole.

But other than that? Let’s just say Crenshaw hasn’t found anything magical about his game. And the only thing mystical about it is where it’s gone.

Today, Crenshaw – the course architect – is as busy as ever. He and partner Bill Coore are breaking ground on a project near Denver, poised to open Bandon Trails in Oregon in June and looking to start projects in Orlando, Fla., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Bend, Ore., in the coming months. At home, he’s juggling the demands of a husband and father of three girls, and helping eldest daughter Katherine, a high school junior, shop around for colleges.

In fact, they looked at UC-Santa Barbara a few weeks ago – just before Crenshaw teed it up a few miles down the road at the Toshiba Senior Classic in Newport Beach, Calif.

Which brings us to the, well, not so high points of recent years. To put it bluntly, Crenshaw has struggled on the Champions Tour. In four seasons, he has had only three top 10s and nine top 25s in 61 events. This year, the man who always has been a brilliant putter ranks 22nd in putting, and is 44th in driving accuracy.

It grinds on him. So much so that the Hall of Famer who won 19 PGA Tour events rarely talks about his game. But in a candid moment, he admitted it’s just not there and, yes, it’s frustrating.

“My game is very much start and stop right now,” Crenshaw said. “And it really has been ever since I’ve gotten on the senior tour. I’ve played some good golf at times, and I’ve played real sloppy at times. And there’s just enough bad holes that keep me back and kind of add to not a lot of confidence.

“I’m just battling it. If I could weed out two or three bad holes every day, I’d feel a little bit better. It just seems like there’s a bad hole that crops up when I don’t need it.”

Example: the 3M Championship in 2003, when he had that old confidence and took the lead late in the final round. Then he had a double and a triple in the final five holes and finished tied for fourth– his best Champions Tour finish, yet in the end, another disappointment.

“I felt like I was going to win that tournament,” he said. “I was doing the things you needed to win a tournament. I just completely messed it up.

“I was holing putts, I was hitting good shots. But I think that tournament and maybe one other . . . well, other than that, I’ve been on the outside looking in. Way outside looking in.”

Crenshaw’s game never was the model of consistency. His career has been marked by highs and lows, but this recent downturn has lasted longer than any other. It started at the end of his PGA Tour career when he slipped out of the top 100, then out of the top 200. Part of it was the Ryder Cup preparations. The rest? He wishes he knew.

And now, he points not only to the inconsistencies in his game, but also the move toward tougher courses for the over-50 set. Sometimes he feels he’s playing U.S. Open-style courses.

“I just never expected the courses to be as tough as they are,” he said. “I play some of these tournaments and I struggle and get nowhere, but I never thought I would be fighting this hard at this age . . . I suppose you have to adjust. You have to try to do things better.”

“I’m not getting the job done. That’s the bottom line.”

A decade ago, Crenshaw could have turned to Penick for help just as he did prior to the 1995 Masters. He had missed several cuts and needed some assurance. Penick told him to go out and play like Ben. To believe in himself.

Today, he still has close friends Brent Buckman and Joe Beck, director of golf at Crenshaw’s Austin Golf Club, to take an occasional look at his swing, but the rest is up to him.

“I get really quick and anxious,” he said, “I swing too fast in order to hit the ball hard instead of letting swing and tempo take care of it.”

But even if he can find the momentum as a senior, he’s realistic when it comes to playing in the Masters. Crenshaw has made the cut at Augusta just once since that second victory, finishing 45th in 1997. He still had hopes of playing well after that, but once the course was lengthened for the 2002 event, he knew the tournament was out of his reach.

“I won in a different era on a completely different golf course,” he said of the changes, which included adding more than 300 yards and rough. “It has changed so demonstrably since then. The set of circumstances is much different. It’s a much, much different golf course.

“I don’t think there’s any question that a smaller number of people can win that tournament now. It’s so much longer, it’s more exacting and it’s a different test of golf with the rough. And I think it’s a more closed contest instead of a more open contest.”

On a recent flight to California, Crenshaw was talking with a sixtysomething man who was an avid tennis player. They started talking about the parallels of how their two sports have changed.

“Tennis has become a power game,” Crenshaw said. “People slug it out on the baseline. These guys like Andy Roddick. No one ever dreamed people would be hitting a serve 145 miles an hour. I never dreamed that we could see someone (Tiger Woods in 2005) drive the 16th green at Doral.

It’s just amazing.”

As he heads into his 34th Masters, Crenshaw is thankful – for being able to slip on that green jacket twice in his career, and for being able to return to Augusta every year. He has no expectations other than to enjoy the week.

“I just feel like I was lucky enough to achieve what I achieved,” he said. “Whenever I go to Augusta, I think of the people who came awful close and never did win. I think of Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman. I think how lucky you are you have one or two. Some wonderful players never did win there.”

– Melanie Hauser is a free-lance writer from Houston.

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