- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They are as vital a part of the Augusta National Golf Club landscape as the azaleas themselves. They have been together for 30 Masters Tournaments. Get ready to have your heart warmed. Ben Crenshaw, with Carl Jackson on his bag, is back on The Masters leaderboard.
They have been together through seven presidents, through two Crenshaw marriages, through one bout of cancer. They have leaned on each other as Crenshaw won The Masters in 1984 and again, against all odds, in 1995. And on Thursday, the 54-year-old Crenshaw, with the wisdom of the 59-year-old Jackson in his ear, shot a 1-under 71.
"So many years, so many putts," Crenshaw said of Jackson. "I have relied on him so much here."
Not that no one expected the 71, but in the last 10 Masters, Crenshaw has missed nine cuts. In fact, the last time Crenshaw broke par at Augusta National, he won the tournament. Now he's tied for eighth, four strokes behind Vijay Singh and -- check it out -- one stroke ahead of Tiger Woods.
And not that no one expected Crenshaw to contend, but he served as master of ceremonies at the Champions Dinner on Tuesday, a job held for the last few centuries by 94-year-old Byron Nelson.
"Byron called me three weeks ago and asked me to take over," Crenshaw said. "I can just tell y'all: I was so nervous. You look down and see all the fellas you love and respect, that you've watched play over the years. I see Jack [Nicklaus] and Arnold [Palmer] and Gary Player out there, Nick Faldo, Vijay and Phil [Mickelson], Tiger sitting next to me. I kind of got through it."
The Champions Dinner is Exhibit A of what The Masters does better than any other sporting event in the world: weave sports and history so that one thread can't be pulled without touching another. It comes from playing a major championship at the same golf course every year, from giving past champions a lifetime invitation, even from the two oak trees that have stood on the clubhouse veranda since long before there was a clubhouse.
Jackson stood under one of those oak trees after the round. Someone brought up another another inestimable piece of Masters history. You've seen the iconic photograph from 1995: Crenshaw, bent at the waist, head in hands, overwhelmed by emotion when he won The Masters in the same week he buried his lifelong mentor, Harvey Penick. Jackson stood behind Crenshaw, hand on his back.
"My buddy was over there bent over," Jackson said. "I had to go see about him."
"There's a bond there," said Julie Crenshaw, Ben's wife of two decades. "that will never be replaced."
Jackson came to work at Augusta National as a teenager in 1961, so long ago that he said his employment choices consisted of getting on the truck for the cotton fields or going to the golf course. When Jackson began to work for Crenshaw in 1976, only caddies employed by Augusta National could work The Masters. Something clicked, and their relationship quickly transcended work. They are the last remaining player-caddie pair from a bygone era.
"He's a dear man and a dear friend," Crenshaw said of Jackson. "We've been lucky in that we've seen so much on the golf course, and been through so much. He's a great reason why I've had my two green jackets and a lot of years in contention. He knows this golf course like you can't believe."
There aren't many putts the two of them haven't seen. Even as the course has undergone more face-lifts than an aging starlet, the knowledge Crenshaw and Jackson share has lost no currency.
"Each year we come back," Jackson said, "we see a new slope here on a green, a new slope there on a green. We have to pay attention."
Jackson said that knowledge made the difference Thursday, when Crenshaw, in his words, "had a few miracles out here." He one-putted three of the first four greens, and then finished with a flourish: a 50-foot bomb for birdie at No. 16 that elicited the first real roar of the 2006 Masters, followed by up-and-down pars at No. 17 and No. 18.
"This week is just a different type of game," Jackson said. "Ben has played well this way a lot. For the last six, eight years, it's been a wet golf course, and really too long for Ben. The ball is rolling, and a lot of guys are seeing a golf course they've never seen before."
Only once since 1976 has Jackson not been on Crenshaw's bag at The Masters. That happened in 2000, when Jackson was recuperating from colon cancer. That's when Crenshaw saw his buddy bent over and had to go see about him.
An oncologist in Asheville, N.C., explained to Jackson that he was a candidate for an experimental European treatment.
"I really felt like I was going to die," Jackson said. "I had told the doctor, 'Let me go,' instead of running up a bill that my family would have to pay."
Then Jackson got a call from Crenshaw.
"He said, 'Carl, whatever it takes for you to get well, you tell those people to do it,'" Crenshaw said. "'We'll take care of it later.'"
Crenshaw wasn't his only benefactor. Warren Stephens, the son of the late Augusta National chairman, Jack Stephens, helped him as well. Jackson is the caddie master at The Alotian Club, near Little Rock, Ark., a club Warren Stephens has founded and patterned after Augusta National.
Every year, however, Jackson returns to Augusta to work for Crenshaw.
"I'm always there for him," Jackson said. "Silver and gold, I have none. But I'll give him what I got."
He always has.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Ben Crenshaw and caddie Carl Jackson have been there for each other through thick and thin ... and 30 Masters.