When Kite met Crenshaw
One of golf's most engaging friendships began with a chance meeting one summer day in Austin in the '60s
March 26, 2019
By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM
One of golf's most engaging friendships began with a chance meeting one summer day in Austin in the '60s
It was one of those steamy hot afternoons in Central Texas.
The kind of summer day when you want to find a little shade and tall glass of iced tea or just say enough and jump into the closest swimming pool.
Ben and Charlie Crenshaw were headed across the parking lot at old Austin Country Club off Riverside Drive, ready to take on the back nine. They were dressed in T-shirts and cutoffs and had their well-worn golf bags – filled with collections of mismatched ladies and junior clubs – slung across their shoulders.
It was the summer of ‘62. Ben was 10; Charlie was 11. They were inseparable back then, whether it was on the golf course, playing baseball or just hanging out. Two brothers, two best friends growing up in Austin in the ‘60s; two pretty good athletes just having fun and trying to get better. At whatever sport they were playing.
Suddenly they saw a slightly older boy – dressed in slacks and a golf shirt -- carrying a new big red bag with a set of Wilson Staff clubs. He had red hair and glasses, brand-new golf shoes and a Texas drawl. His family had just moved down from Dallas and joined the club.
His name was Tom Kite.
“Y’all mind if I play the back nine with you?” he said.
The Crenshaw boys sized him up and said sure, c’mon.
After Kite took a big swing on the tee and missed the ball – the club hit behind it, followed by the Crenshaw boys just looking at each other – he settled down and, nine holes later, there wasn’t any question. Ben and Charlie knew Tom could play.
Ben and Charlie remember the day like it was yesterday, but Tom doesn’t. He was the new kid in town and settling into a new place, a new club and whole new world of golf.
It was, well, a bit overwhelming. Really strong players everywhere he looked and one great teacher in Harvey Penick.
“There were so many guys I met that first summer and it’s just one of those things,’’ Kite said. “I don’t remember a particular round or anything. Just all of a sudden, I was thrown in with so many good players that it was mindboggling for me to come down and see all these great junior players that Harvey had taught.
“It was like ‘Holy smokes.’ I wasn’t any good back then, but for a 12-year-old, I was pretty good. There had been some decent players in Dallas and all of a sudden you come down here to a city with 250,000 people and there’s more single-digit handicappers -- men, women and juniors -- than I had ever come in contact with. It quite an awakening.’’
And that meeting? Turned out, it was quite a moment, didn’t it? One for the golf history books.
It didn’t take long until you couldn’t hear one name mentioned without the other. Ben and Tom. Tom and Ben. Crenshaw and Kite.
They lived and breathed Texas football. Ben and Charlie had grown up with the coaches -- like the legendary Darrell Royal -- and their families as a part of their social and athletic lives. It didn’t take long for Tom to be hooked as a Longhorn for life.
Under Harvey’s watchful eye, Kite and Crenshaw became the city’s top juniors in a field that was head-to-toe crowded. By high school they were taking on the best players in the city. Ben was the golden boy, the one with pure talent; Tom was the guy who never gave up – he would simply outwork you. They were rivals who became teammates and, along the way, lifelong friends.
Some 50 years later, they’re still Ben and Tom. Or Tom and Ben.
“We were so good for each other,’’ Ben said, shaking his head. “God Bless … we made each other better.’’
With Harvey’s hand on their shoulders, Ben and Tom became two of the best to ever play the game. Major champions. World Golf Hall of Fame members. Austin’s finest. Part of an incredible Lone Star golf legacy.
And always – yes always -- Harvey’s boys.
It may seem a little mind-boggling to think that a quiet city like little old Austin in the ‘60s would be the home to an amazingly gifted and understated Hall of Fame teacher like Harvey and talented players like Ben and Tom, but it really isn’t.
Harvey nurtured a world of talent on his practice range. Players such as Miller Barber and Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright would be out there the same time as Harvey’s juniors were during the summers working on their games. Ben and Tom took it all in.
“A lot of times they would come in and be there for a week or four or five days,’’ Tom said. “If it was during the summer, we’d all be out at the golf course. We’d have competition with them on the chipping green.’’
And lessons with Harvey, of course.
Harvey would be on the practice tee all day long, keeping an eye on everyone. He’d notice a little thing here or there and point it out.
“It didn’t take long for him to correct us,’’ Kite said. “A lot of times, he would just come up and make a comment. It wouldn’t take two minutes. Other times, it was a lot of time.
“Not many towns this size had a teacher that good, that professional, that giving of his time. Harvey was pretty special.’’
Harvey was a one-on-one teacher. Ben and Tom never took a lesson together. In fact, none of Harvey’s students did.
“He wanted to make sure that your lesson was your lesson,’’ Kite said. “It wasn’t going to be someone else’s lesson.’’
It made perfect sense. Harvey could read a player with ease. As Ben says, he would study a player’s countenance and before the lesson began, he knew the type a player and what they needed.
Tom and Ben were total opposites. They approached the game differently; they learned differently. They played differently
Ben’s first lesson came one day when he was tagging along with his dad – Big Charlie – at Austin Country Club. They took him to the range, Harvey put a cut-down 5-iron in his hands and placed them on the grip. “Now keep them there,’’ he said.
That’s what Ben’s done ever since.
“Harvey purposely kept us apart because we went about the game in different ways,’’ Crenshaw said. “Tom was every analytical, very precise. He’s always been a tinkerer. He hit so many balls. No one has worked at the game harder. No one.
“And I was just the opposite. But Harvey knew that when were little bitty kids. He would say, ‘Tom I’ll see you on the practice tee’ and ‘Ben, just go play.’ ‘’
Ben was already making a name for himself when Tom got to town, but he wasn’t the only one.
Another thing that set Austin apart was the amazing number of scratch or near-scratch golfers. Players such as six-time Firecracker Open champ Billy Claggett, Lester Lundell, Chuck Munson and Cary Petri were just a few years older than Ben and Tom and they were already playing in city men’s events against the best male players in the city, period – men like five-time City Men’s champ Roane Puett, four-time city champ Billy Penn and the legendary Dudley Krueger, one of the city’s best who worked at the university as a janitor.
Tom was still learning the game but picked it up fast. You had to in Austin or you’d get left behind.
“The thing that was crazy is when I was 12 and Ben was 10, we were pretty good for 12- and 10- year-olds, but there were some 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds who were really good,’’ Kite said. “When Lester Lundell won the (Texas) State Junior down at Brackenridge Park (in San Antonio), it was ‘Holy Moly.’ Lester was three years older than me and five years older than Ben.
“When you’re 60 and 65, it’s not a big deal. But when you’re talking 8 and 13, it’s huge. There were junior golfers who were so far ahead of us because they’d been around a long time and had taken lessons from Harvey …
“If you were an average player, you were so far down the list, it wasn’t even funny.’’
Tom and Ben grew up just a few miles apart, but in different neighborhoods. Ben lived just down the road from Lions Municipal Golf Course – better known as Muny – while Tom was farther north. Ben went to O’Henry Junior High, then on to Austin High; Tom went to Lamar Junior High and McCallum High.
Because junior high and senior high were each three-year-old schools at the time, they played against each other only one year at each level. It was similar in junior age-group golf.
They were friends and friendly rivals on the golf course. There wasn’t, despite what some think, a heated rivalry or a scorecard.
“People got that impression, but it wasn’t right,’’ Crenshaw said. “We went to different schools. We had different circle of friends outside of golf. We never disliked each other at all.”
Tom had played at Riverlakes Country Club in Dallas, which had a good junior program, but not close to what was offered in Austin. Tom knew he had work to do to catch up and compete.
“I didn’t’ have the talent that Ben did, and I didn’t have the talent that Lester had and those were the two best junior players on either end of the bookend,’’ he said. “I didn’t have the athletic ability to match them, so I had to outwork ‘em.’’
Which he did.
Tom Kite Sr., worked for the Internal Revenue Service and the offices were in South Austin, not far from Austin CC. During the summers, Tom Sr., would drop his son off at the club on his way to work – usually before 8 a.m.
“The guys would just be finished mowing and I had all that time to practice and work on my game,’’ Tom said. “I had nice time to myself on the practice tee, then by 9 or 9:30, the rest of the guys would get there and -- all of a sudden – we were on the golf course, rocking and rolling.’’
Like everyone else, he would spend all day playing and practicing, having lunch and jumping in the pool. The alone time in the morning was perfect for his analytical mind and, most days, his dad – one of his closest friends -- would join him late afternoon for another nine holes.
“It was a great childhood, a phenomenal childhood,’’ Kite said.
Don’t ask Ben and Tom to talk about individual events where they went head-to-head. They don’t remember. If you want specifics, you’ll have to go to the scrapbooks now housed at UT’s H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.
Fifty-something years has a way of pushing details to the side and replacing them with warm feelings and softer big-picture memories.
“All I know is his name was always there,’’ Crenshaw recalled. “We were all getting a little better at that age and his name and my name were always right there up around the top and it just kept on.
“In retrospect, we were just so good for each other. It’s the old story – competition. You can’t beat that. You have to have that in order to get better
“We wanted to beat the other person, but deep down, if I can beat this guy, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Tom was heads above the others. He was going to find a way to make a good score.’’
They pushed each other hard. Players like Richard Burratti, Bob Elliott and Chuck Munson were there pushing hard, too. By their mid-teens, they were all teeing it up in Austin men’s events as well as junior amateur events around the state.
But Ben was step ahead. At 15, he won the first of two State Junior titles and won the City Men’s title. Two years later, at 17, he won the annual Firecracker Open – a year after Tom won it – with what he still calls the best ball-striking round of his career.
He either drove or just missed the green on three 350-plus-yard par 4s that day and shot 64. An amazing stretch.
Ben knew Muny like the back of his hand. He would sometimes walk over and play it by himself. His father found Ben’s famous – and often infamous – Wilson 8802 putter Little Ben in a barrel at Muny when Ben was 16. The price tag was $15. The memories? Including the 1984 Masters? Priceless.
Ben won two State Juniors (1967 and 1969), but Tom never had much luck at that event. Brackenridge didn’t suit his game. The only bad luck Ben had there? In 1967 he got his first speeding ticket right by the course. He’d only had his license two weeks.
During a four-year stretch, the Austin duo dominated the 4A state championship, with Tom winning medalist honors as a junior and senior in 1967 and 1968, and Ben following him with titles in 1969 and 1970. Austin High also won the team title in 1969 – the year Ben won 18 of the 19 high school tournaments he played.
Ben and Tom spent their summers traveling to play against the best in the nation. Guys who were even better than the Austin gang. Guys who knew Ben and Tom were good. But so were they.
They competed in events like the Eastern Amateur, the Western Am, the Porter Cup, the Sunnehanna. And their competition? Names like Lanny Wadkins, Eddie Pearce, Bruce Lietzke, Bill Rogers, Jerry Pate. The competition, just as in Austin, pushed them.
“Again, there were other juniors who were way better than us,’’ Kite said. “We couldn’t worry too much about each other because there were so many more.’’
Ben came within a shot of making it to the National Juniors at 15. All he needed was a two-putt at the final hole at the qualifier at Houston County Club, but he accidentally kicked his ball on the green.
In the summer of 1969, Ben came within a shot of qualifying for the U.S. Open at Champions Golf Club. A year later, he qualified for his first U.S. Open and played at Hazeltine.
By then, Tom was the anchor of a strong UT team.
There never was much question where Ben would go to college, but Tom was heavily recruited by both Texas and the University of Houston, where coach Dave Williams had built a powerhouse program. Tom weighed the decision and went with Texas, where the late George Hannon was building his own powerhouse.
Kite was the first major recruit that Williams lost.
Two years later, Ben signed with UT. Ben and Tom. Tom and Ben. Williams got tired of hearing those names.
Williams’ Cougars won the NCAA title during Tom’s freshman and sophomore years, but when Ben joined Tom on the roster, Houston’s run was over. Ben won the first of his three individual titles as a freshman, and Ben and Tom led Texas to the 1971 NCAA team title.
All of which brings us to perhaps the most famous non-major, non-Ryder Cup head-to-head moment between Ben and Tom. Call it the showdown that wasn’t.
Tom led the individual standings after the first two days of the 1972 NCAA Championships in Cape Coral, Florida, and, late on the final day, Texas was heading for a second NCAA title. Suddenly, Tom wasn’t alone atop the individual standings. Ben had closed the gap.
Ben needed to par that final hole to tie Tom for medalist and he proceeded to hit his drive behind a tree, chipped out and was 20 yards short of the green. He chipped again and had a 20-foot uphill putt to tie.
Tom couldn’t watch. Ben holed it.
“That was a preposterous putt I made there,’’ Crenshaw said. “So totally unexpected. I didn’t play the hole well and it was a desperate putt. I hit it too hard and it jumped up in the back of the cup and went in to tie him.’’
Ben walked off the green ready for a playoff. Tom was prepping as well. Then officials told them they weren’t playing off. They were named co-champions, co-medalists.
“That,” Crenshaw said, “was crazy.”
Tom graduated and turned pro, while Ben played for the Longhorns as a junior and won his third individual title. And yes, Ben and the rest of the UT team followed Tom’s rookie season.
“We knew he was going to take his work ethic with him and test himself on the TOUR,’’ Crenshaw said. “We couldn’t wait for him to come back and ask him questions like ‘How is it out there?’ and ‘What’s it like?’
“I remember him saying, ‘It’s a different ballgame, but I’m trying.’ ‘’
During those college days, Ben and Tom were always at the top of the leaderboard. But so were Lietzke, Wadkins Rogers, Curtis Strange and so many more.
“It just seemed like there were so many that we would go into the tournament and we would be the favorites,’’ Kite said. “I would win some, Ben would win some. Ben obviously won more.’’
After turning pro in 1973, Ben won his first PGA TOUR event – the Texas Open, naturally. Tom followed three years later, getting his first win at the 1976 Philadelphia IVB Classic. And for the next few decades, they were Ben and Tom – always favorites, no matter what the list.
Ben and Tom came close in so many majors that first decade on TOUR and Ben broke through first, winning the 1984 Masters. Tom won THE PLAYERS Championship in 1989 and got his major at the 1992 U.S. Open on that challenging Sunday, persevering despite wind gusts to 40 mph.
Then, the week after Harvey Penick died in 1995, Ben won his second major – an emotional and iconic Masters.
The two were on the phone the night Harvey passed away – Ben in Augusta; Tom in Austin. They shared stories and tears; they made travel plans to honor the man who brought them together and taught them the game they’ve played so well; the game they love.
The both won 19 times on the PGA TOUR and have been inducted – like Harvey – into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Tom was the TOUR’s all-time leading money winner for years and played on seven Ryder Cup teams, while Ben played on four. They even served as back-to-Ryder Cup captains in 1997 and 1999 – Tom’s team lost in Spain in 1997, Ben’s made a historic comeback to win two years later at Brookline.
Tom turns 70 this year and is still actively playing on the Champions Tour, while Ben, the golf historian, has turned his attention to golf course design, playing now only for fun. They’re both grandfathers with lives in different parts of Austin and different interests. And, yes, they remain good friends.
“Tom’s still out there playing, god bless him,’’ Crenshaw said. “I know he’s outworking everybody out there on the practice tee. I guarantee he’s doing that. And my hat’s off to him.
“I got to about three years ago and I couldn’t play a lick and I said this is coming to an end.”
This week Ben and Tom will front and center once again at Austin Country Club – this time on the Pete Dye course built in 1995 in a different part of Austin from the ACC they grew up on. They’ll be spectators at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.
They’ll be talking golf and telling stories about Harvey, about growing up in Austin, about playing with and against each other, about all those friends they still see and play with who pushed them as juniors. About just how blessed they are.
“Every time we get together – which isn’t that often -- we always look at each other and say how lucky we were growing up in Austin under Harvey and having our parents,’’ Crenshaw said.
“We could not have had it much better … We’re lucky to have lasted this long and enjoyed the nice things we had growing up. With the surroundings we had, with our instruction, parents and the courses we played, we couldn’t turn out half-bad.’’
Harvey couldn’t have said it any better. He knew they were special and destined for special things.
Like we said, two kids met on an Austin golf course one afternoon and, well, in retrospect, it turned out to be quite a cool moment.