Ben Crenshaw ready to say goodbye to Augusta

 

In April, Ben Crenshaw will play in his final Masters. The two-time champion reflects on a storied relationship

By LEE PACE

Ben Crenshaw was low amateur in the 1972 and ’73 Masters Tournaments, finishing 19th and 24th, respectively. He played in the annual rite of spring at Augusta National the next 43 years, winning in 1984 and 1995 and notching nine more top 10 finishes. He’s made the cut only two of the last 17 years, though, as the golf course has been consistently stretched out to match the power of today’s athletic swings and the heat generated by modern club technology.

Augusta played 6,905 yards when Crenshaw won in 1984. It played 7,435 yards in 2014, and Crenshaw’s rounds of 83-85 prompted him to say, “Enough.”

The 2015 Masters will be his last.

It’s a little bittersweet, but good Lord I’m just thankful for all the time I’ve had there. I’ve spent well over half my life going to Augusta. It’s obviously been a great part of my life.” -Ben Crenshaw

“I’ve been thinking about it a few years now and made the decision last year,” Crenshaw says. “I just said I think it’s time. It’s a little bittersweet, but good Lord I’m just thankful for all the time I’ve had there. I’ve spent well over half my life going to Augusta. It’s obviously been a great part of my life. I’ll continue to go each year, tearfully, and watch other people. It’s time to do that. The golf course is just a little too much for me, which is fine, that’s the way life goes. I’m resigned to that.

“It’s been tough for me to play the course the last decade, a feeling of futility,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “But they needed to do all those things they’ve done, lengthening the course. They needed to do that to challenge the world’s top players. They’re doing a great job in that. It’s amazing how they’ve presented the course. On the approach shots, today’s top players are playing some of the same shots we used to. Augusta is still a great challenge. It’s a unique challenge always on and around those greens. That part is always the same.”

The Master Host

Crenshaw will continue to serve as the emcee of the annual Tuesday evening Champions Dinner. Byron Nelson was the unofficial host for many years until asking Crenshaw to take over in 2006 when a period of declining health kept Nelson at home in Texas that year. All the former champions gather on the second floor of the clubhouse, with the reigning champion choosing the menu and paying the bill.

Crenshaw welcomes the elite gathering, says a few words and introduces the champion for a brief talk.

“They tell stories. All the young ones want to know from the older ones what the course played like years ago, who were you chasing, what shots did you hit, what happened.” -Ben Crenshaw

“It’s a great honor that I have, I simply just try to get the night started,” Ben says. “Byron kept it light, and I try to do the same.  We’re very, very lucky to be in that room. Mostly you want to hear players converse among themselves. They tell stories. All the young ones want to know from the older ones what the course played like years ago, who were you chasing, what shots did you hit, what happened.”

This year, Crenshaw will reminisce about 1970 Masters champion Billy Casper, who died in February at the age of 83.

“Billy was such a nice man,” Crenshaw says. “If he is not the most underrated player of all time, he’s right up there. You don’t win 51 times and not display a great amount of talent and tournament toughness. My good friend David Marr said one of the great things about Billy. He said ‘You know, Bill is a really nice man, but he gets mean when gets close to the lead.’ That summed him up.

“Billy had the greatest pair of hands you’ve ever seen. And he shared something interesting with Sam Snead in that both of them pitched the ball with a pitching wedge more than a sand wedge. He was very unique in the way he did that. He hit a lower shot and let the ball run out a little more.”

Ben and Carl

The 2015 Masters will likely be the last as well for Carl Jackson, Crenshaw’s long-time caddie at Augusta. Jackson is an Augusta native and has worked every Masters except one since 1961—39 of them with Crenshaw. He lives in Little Rock, Ark., where he is caddie master at the Alotian Golf Club and in late February was to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Jackson will also be the honoree at the Augusta Mayor’s Masters Reception on Monday of Augusta week.

“Whatever I’ve achieved at Augusta has been due to Carl,” Crenshaw says. “He made me yearn for knowledge about that golf course. He knew me and knew my moods. Carl, my friend, knew I was struggling with my game in 1995, just after Harvey Penick’s death. He watched a few swings, a few half-hearted swings, and he could tell I was sort of lost. Carl picked me up and got me back on track that week.”

Pinehurst’s Restoration – A Masterful Work

Crenshaw has been more of a course architect and restoration specialist the last decade with design partner Bill Coore as his playing career has wound down. The team’s work concentrated from 2010-11 on the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 and continuing today on a consulting basis was roundly applauded as the course was the venue for the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.  Coore & Crenshaw will remain involved with Pinehurst owner Bob Dedman Jr. and club officials on future maintenance, agronomic and design issues. The most significant change since the Opens has been the resurfacing of the greens with Champion ultradwarf Bermuda.

“We were pleased to death with the way the course played. We had a minimum amount of moisture, and firm and fast conditions were what we all wanted to achieve. The ball was definitely elusive enough that it reflected on the scoring and the thinking and the shot-making.” -Ben Crenshaw

“We were pleased to death with the way the course played,” Crenshaw says. “We had a minimum amount of moisture, and firm and fast conditions were what we all wanted to achieve. The ball was definitely elusive enough that it reflected on the scoring and the thinking and the shot-making.”

Crenshaw turned 63 in January and with his Masters finale on the horizon, he’s certainly headed off into the sunset of his competitive career. But he’ll forever be the man who won two Masters titles and had a hand in repositioning No. 2 as what architect Donald Ross intended—a course with the bounce and ruggedness of his native Scotland played with a sharp mind, a sound plan and deft feel and touch.

All in all, a pretty good life’s work.

Lee Pace has been writing about the Pinehurst golf scene for three decades. His latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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