Get ready to cry
Twenty years after his second Masters win, Ben Crenshaw will bid an emotional farewell next week to Augusta National
March 31, 2015
By Melanie Hauser, Special to PGATOUR.COM,
Twenty years after his second Masters win, Ben Crenshaw will bid an emotional farewell next week to Augusta National
Ben Crenshaw has been the center of attention for a month now. Everybody wants to chat with him. Family and friends. Reporters. Well-wishers. The subject is always the same — the Masters, a tournament Ben loves and his favorite topic of discussion any time, especially at the start of spring, when the azaleas start to bloom and the golf world eyes the year's first major.
But this time the questions aren’t about the most diabolical putts or the baffling winds that dance through the trees at Augusta National.
They're about closing a chapter in his life.
Next week will be Ben’s last Masters as a player. The last time he’ll tee it up in competition, the last time he’ll make that walk up the 18th fairway to one of golf’s most iconic settings. The last time the patrons will help him celebrate those two incredible Masters wins in 1984 and 1995.
Oh, he’ll still be at Augusta National every year to preside over the Champions Dinner. He’ll still be every golf writer’s go-to guy for anything Augusta National, Bobby Jones, golf history or architecture or . . . well you name it. His thoughtful answers make every story richer.
He just won’t be out there side-by-side with caddie Carl Jackson competing on a course they’ve always loved -- one that’s given as well as taken away, one that they understand in a way only a very few ever have. They’ve been a team for 36 years and, if you’re counting, this last one will be Ben’s 44th Masters and Carl’s 54th.
Two years ago, Ben was working on his second book with me – "Two Roads to Augusta" – and I asked him what he thought it would be like to play that final time. He started off smiling, but a few minutes into it, he couldn’t go on. He wiped away the tears and walked outside. We resumed a bit later and he had to step away again.
That’s Ben. He cries at sad movies and wouldn’t harm a spider ... well, a tarantula. Really. He captured one in a coffee can one day and released it into the woods. Couldn’t squish it.
And about that nickname – Gentle Ben. Oh, it’s definitely fitting for the Southern Texas gentleman we know, but it didn’t start out that way. An Austin sportswriter had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he gave Ben the nickname during his amateur days.
Ben had a temper back then. He tossed or broke his share of clubs and had a tantrum or two. Even when he turned pro it got the best of him. Like at Colonial in 1980 when he was in contention and three-putted the par-3 16th. He walked off the green and kicked an oil drum that was being used as a trash container ... and broke the sesamoid bone in his right foot. That led to an arthritic condition and surgery in 1997.
He laughs about it now, but it wasn’t funny when he had to cut a hole in his shoe to play the next day. Or when he was limping around for months.
It wasn’t funny either when, during his singles match with Eamonn Darcy at the 1987 Ryder Cup, he took his frustration with so-so play out on a buckeye. Tapped it hard with his putter, Little Ben – not a brutal tap at all -- and the shaft just snapped. When Captain Jack Nicklaus asked how he was doing on the next hole, Ben mumbled, “I broke my putter back there.” Nicklaus shook his head and Ben putted the rest of the way with a sand wedge or a 1-iron. He lost 1 up.
I’ve written about Ben for 40 years now, although I didn’t get to my first Masters until 1984. Talk about a moment. As overwhelming at Augusta National is the first time you step onto the course, it was even more so when, on that Sunday afternoon, Ben finally slipped on that Green Jacket for the first time.
There will probably be a tear running down my cheek when I watch Ben walk up that fairway for the last time next week, but it won’t be overwhelming. Instead, I’ll be thinking of those quiet unguarded moments we’ve spent under the tree or in the locker room over the last 32 years.
Ben’s first Masters was in 1972. He was a rising superstar back then with two NCAA individual titles in his pocket, charisma, boyish good looks, an aw-shucks grin and, since it was the ‘70s, long shaggy blonde hair that flipped below his collar.
He was taking everything in when Augusta National chairman and co-founder Clifford Roberts greeted him. After a few pleasantries, Roberts asked him if he knew there was a barber shop in the clubhouse, just off the front porch. Ben got the drift – and a haircut.
Even after all these years, Ben still gets excited when his invitation to the Masters arrives in the mail. He’ll tell you the invitation reflects the tournament – simple and elegant, like the Club. And every year – unfailingly – he pauses to respond back with his RSVP.
By the time he got to Augusta National, Ben had devoured everything he could about the course. He could also talk forever about Bobby Jones, the heart and soul of Augusta National – his career, his life, his passions. He had such a profound effect on Ben’s life that he even has a special Jones area in his study.
Unfortunately, they never met. Jones died in December 1971, four months before Ben’s first Masters.
Jones would have loved that Ben slipped on the Green Jacket twice. He would have taken an interest in the young superstar who finished low amateur in his first two Masters – a tie for 19th and a tie for 24th.
He would have also noticed after two more top 30 finishes – as Augusta National members Jack Stephens and John Griffith did -- that something was missing. It was a rock-solid caddie.
Luke Collins had been on Ben’s bag, but Stephens (who went on to serve as Augusta National’s chairman) and Griffith decided to see how Ben might fare with Carl, who worked for Stephens.
Carl had watched Ben play a tee shot in 1974, but they’d never met until they walked onto the property during Masters week in 1976. That Sunday, they finished second. Then they tied for eighth in 1977. There was no splitting them up.
Carl was the perfect complement to Ben’s incredible game. He had grown up in The Sand Hill, just a few blocks away from Augusta National. He started caddying at 11 to help support his family. He caddied in his first Masters at 14 and by 1976 there weren’t many caddies who knew the course as well, let alone better.
It took eight years and three more top-8 finishes after they paired up before Ben slipped on the Green Jacket.
To say one of Ben’s Masters wins was better than the other is to compare azaleas and magnolias. The first one established him as future World Golf Hall of Famer; the second was mesmerizing, surprising and, as it turned out, an exclamation to his playing career.
Both coincided with emotional upheaval.
Early that week in 1984, Ben’s dad – Big Charlie or Big C as everyone called him – found me under the sprawling oak tree before the tournament started and told me off the record that Ben had made the decision a few weeks earlier to divorce his first wife, Polly. It had been a difficult few years and Big Charlie just knew the decision had lifted a weight off his younger son’s heart.
I made a mental note of that and, as the week went on, Big Charlie kept reminding me.
That Sunday? Well, so many things happened – and that 60-foot bomb at No. 10 that gave him a two-shot lead was only a start. Ben looked as though he went for the flag at the cruel 12th – something nobody does – but he didn’t. He pushed his tee shot and it wound up 12 feet away. He drained it and was up by three.
He wanted to go for the green with his second shot at the 13th, but glanced behind him to see Tom Kite and Mark Lye put their tee shots in the water at the famous par 3. Then, he thought he saw Billy Joe Patton in the gallery. Just thinking he saw Patton – as it turned out, it wasn’t him – caused Ben to lay up because he remembered that in 1954 Patton, an amateur, went for the green on both 13 and 15 and lost a chance to win the Masters.
The key to winning in ’84 may have been a par save at No. 14. He had a nasty 15-footer, but Carl read it, Ben hit it and it dropped. “That desperate putt meant more than the one at 10,’’ he said, ‘’because it held the round together.’’
It’s hard to forget the hug between Big Charlie and Ben that afternoon.
“It was such a relief and joy,’’ Ben said. “It was something my father and I could share together. His little boy had just won the Masters, the finest tournament we knew.’’
Big Charlie’s little boy could have – maybe should have – won there more than twice. He was right there in 1987, 1988 and 1989, playing in Sunday’s final pairing. He missed the playoff in 1987 by a shot, was third in 1988 and missed the 1989 playoff again by a shot.
Carl hasn’t forgiven himself for 1989. That Sunday was rainy and he had packed extra super-thick towels in the bag, just in case. He ate lunch, never checked the bag again and didn’t realize the towels were missing until they needed them later that day.
Ben’s hands were slipping down the stretch and he couldn’t find the feel. It was frustrating, but Ben gave credit to winner Nick Faldo, who closed with a 65.
Which brings us to 1995, that incredible week and the image of Ben sobbing on the 18th green and Carl steadying him, hands on his old friend’s shoulders.
Ben wasn’t playing well early in 1995. He had stopped by to see his longtime coach Harvey Penick, who was frail and in bed, and Harvey asked him to grab a putter and let him see Ben’s stroke.
The first time Harvey asked a young Ben to put his hand on the club, he saw the magic. The grip was perfect and he told the youngster never to change it. Now, he was trying to give Ben something – anything – to put him back on track.
The Sunday before the Masters started, Harvey passed away after watching Davis Love III win at Hilton Head and earn an invite to Augusta National. Ben was already in Augusta when he got the call from Tom Kite that Harvey had died. They cried together.
The question everyone was asking: How would Ben handle it?
The key was Carl. Carl knew Ben’s swing like the back of his hand and he told me he noticed something. Tuesday on the practice tee, Carl said two things – move the ball back a tad in your stance and tighten up your shoulder turn. Ben hit four balls and it clicked.
“Carl,’’ Ben said, “started the week off by crawling inside Harvey’s body.’’
The next day, Ben flew back to Austin for Harvey’s funeral and told Big Charlie and Little Charlie he had found something. They saw it in his eyes and, as Little Charlie said, he had never seen such conviction in his brother.
When Ben got back, he sought out Carl and they worked a bit on putting. U.S. Amateur champ Tiger Woods and runner-up Trip Kuehne stopped by to visit and ask about putting. Ben was totally relaxed.
The next day, Ben’s benched Little Ben in favor of a similar putter he had picked up in the office of Scotty Sayers, his long-time friend and agent. He nicknamed it Little Scotty.
Each day Ben got a little stronger, a little more determined. After each round, I checked in with Carl, too. He kept saying good things were happening.
After Saturday’s round, Ben’s second wife Julie called Charlie and told him to get on a plane. His brother was going to win this tournament. Charlie hadn’t been there in 1984 and Julie didn’t want him to miss this one.
The toughest thing about being in the final group Sunday at the Masters is the waiting. Charlie landed in Augusta and everyone in Ben’s house was chipping pine cones to pass the time.
Suddenly, Ben walked down the driveway by himself and just stood there for a long there just thinking about the day; about the week; about what just might unfold.
The turning point that week had come at the 14th hole on Friday. On the scorecard, it was a two-putt for par. In reality, it was the meanest putt he and Carl had ever seen there.
It was a diabolical 45-footer that could easily be a three-putt. Ben swore it would take 30 minutes to describe it, but, basically, it had to skirt a crest and settle down. It did, 18 inches from the hole.
All week people had been asking Ben what it would mean to him to win this one for Harvey and he kept saying he was trying not to think about it. He was focusing on the shots.
On Sunday, Ben pulled his first two drives and Julie was a little nervous. So was the rest of Team Crenshaw.
Ben didn’t look at a leaderboard that day until he made par at No. 15. He heard a roar and it was Davis Love III, his close friend, finishing at 18. They were tied for the lead.
At 16, Ben drew his tee shot perfectly and made the putt. He was up by one. Then he hit a 9-iron to 13 feet at 17th and made an improbable left-to-right birdie putt. He was up by two.
The hardest job at that point fell to Carl, who, after they teed off at No. 18, had to make sure Ben didn’t get ahead of himself. The patrons were cheering and Ben was starting to cry. Suddenly, he felt Harvey’s hand on his shoulder and heard Carl’s voice.
He pulled himself together, but his approach was short. He chipped to 10 feet and … you know the rest.
Back in Austin the next morning, Ben went to get a newspaper and came back with a sack filled with every major paper in the state. “You won’t believe this,’’ he told Julie. “It’s all over the front page. All of them.” That’s all he got out before he burst out crying.
That Masters was Ben’s last win. What a way to go out.
A few years later, we all know what happened at Brookline Country Club when he wagged his finger at the press room Saturday night and said he was big believer in fate. The next day he captained the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team to the biggest comeback in history.
For the last 15 years, he’s played a little on the Champions Tour, but concentrated on his family and his golf course design partnership with Bill Coore, which has produced some stunning courses like Bandon Trails and Streamsong Resort and an acclaimed renovation of Pinehurst No. 2, which hosted last year’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. He loves the details of the design process and sees beauty in every bend and curve. His trusts his eye and he’s seldom wrong.
He learned from the best – Augusta National.
Ben hasn’t just played Augusta for the last 44 years, he has let it touch his heart. He immersed himself in the details of the design, of the things not seen, but rather felt. He knows where the wind is blowing before you see the trees rustle. He feels his way around the course and knows instinctively where that putt or chip will break.
Carl’s had a hand in that, too. He grew up at Augusta National and learned from the old-time caddies who went by feel more than yardage. And he and Ben have learned together, too. They figured out the secret to putting Augusta’s greens years ago. They call it The Pull and that’s what it does to just about every putt on the course. They kept it their secret for years, but now they’ll share it if you ask.
They’ve been through tough times off the course together – Ben battling Graves disease; Carl fighting cancer. They’ve been through close calls and two magnificent Sundays.
Before the 1996 Masters, the Crenshaws had stopped in Augusta to shoot some promos for CBS. Ben had shown his two oldest daughters so many things there that were special to him and as they flew out, he sat next to his oldest daughter Katherine and tried to explain how much Augusta meant to him. He broke into tears.
When he and Carl walk up that 18th fairway next week for the final time, there will be smiles and tears – from them as well as all the friends and family who’ll be outside the ropes. But there will also be contentment in knowing that it’s simply time to step away, to enjoy what they’ve accomplished.