Commentary

Before win, Crenshaw felt desperation

Originally Published: April 4, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

The sense of urgency that may or may not be a burden for highly regarded players such as Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott is part of the dynamic when expectations are so high.

Ben Crenshaw knows the feeling.

Twenty five years ago, he was long past the hotshot stage of his golf career, a player who was supposed to win major championships. The fact that he had not to that point was a source of some frustration.

"I was starting to feel it," Crenshaw said recently. "I had lost four or five times, been close, right there. And you just don't know. You don't know until it happens. I felt like I could do it. And hold things together. But I hadn't done it yet."

That all changed at the 1984 Masters, when Crenshaw, now 57, finally captured what was the first of two titles at Augusta National. There had been close calls, such as the 1975 U.S. Open, the 1978 and 1980 British Opens. He lost in a playoff to David Graham at the 1979 PGA.

And as the years went by, the pressure mounted.

"I can't blame any shortcoming at all on that," he said. "I played well in spots. But I had just not gotten it done. It came from within. A few players won their first major championship when they were very young. But they had gotten the opportunity and they got it done. All sorts of people. Some of us had to wait a little longer."

It only intensified at the Masters, where Crenshaw had a keen sense of history. There might not be a player in golf history who knows more about the game's past, who has studied it and reveled in it.

The Masters, founded by amateur Bobby Jones, and Augusta National, designed by famed architect Alistair McKenzie, were all the more important.

"I truly love the place, still do," Crenshaw said. "It's always been completely different than the rest, in a lot of regards. The club itself, the way they host the tournament. The architecture. Different atmosphere. And it just appealed to me in a lot of different ways. Playing the course I thought was different than any other championship. They had different principles in mind when they built it. The nature of playing it … It's theatrical. It's emotional. I've used that word to describe it because you can take charge if you want to. You can fail spectacularly or get a run going."

Crenshaw had turned pro in 1973 after his junior year at the University of Texas, where he had won three NCAA individual titles (one he shared with teammate Tom Kite.)

Already a legend in Texas, Crenshaw qualified at age 13 for the Texas Junior Championship by shooting 70 and won 18 of 19 tournaments he entered as a senior at Austin High. That summer, at age 18, he became the second-youngest low amateur in the history of the U.S. Open, while finishing ahead of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the 1970 tournament.

The first tournament he played as a pro, the 1973 San Antonio Open, Crenshaw won.

But by 1984, Crenshaw had yet to win a major.

Masters Best Ball Challenge

"When you land in the water on the 71st hole to miss a playoff in the U.S. Open, when you double-bogey the 71st hole to lose the British Open, when you lose a playoff in the PGA, when you miss by one shot, you start to wonder if you can hold yourself together," Crenshaw said. "I was 32. I felt a tinge of desperation."

It didn't help that as the Masters approached that year, Crenshaw was going through a divorce from his first wife.

But he was blessed with the good fortune he said is necessary to win such a tournament. During the second round, Crenshaw holed a bunker shot for a birdie at the ninth hole. During the final round, he birdied the eighth and ninth holes, then made a 60-footer for birdie at the 10th. "It was just a preposterous putt," he said.

And then his keen sense of Masters lore played a role. During that final round, he led Kite, Larry Nelson and Gil Morgan by three shots after a birdie at the 12th. At the par-5 13th, Crenshaw hit a perfect drive that left him a 4-wood shot to the green.

He debated whether to go for the green or not, then thought he saw Billy Joe Patton in the gallery. Patton had been a Masters rules official for years, but Crenshaw knew all about his fate in the tournament. In 1954 -- 30 years prior -- Patton was on his way to becoming the first (and only) amateur to win the Masters.

But during the final round, he hit both of his approach shots to the par-5 13th and 15th holes in the water and finished third, a shot behind Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. (Snead won in a playoff.)

"That was his spot, he had been there right on 13," Crenshaw recalled. "I thought I had seen him, but whether I did or not, it in some ways helped me. And certainly remembered what he did. I just didn't think it was a good time to go for it."

Crenshaw laid up and made par. He also two-putted from 80 feet at the 14th hole, made birdie at the 15th and went on to defeat Tom Watson by two strokes.

"I was very thankful that I had gotten that done, because I had been close in some other major championships," said Crenshaw, who won the tournament again in 1995 -- the last of his 19 PGA Tour titles. "And you just never know unless it happens. I held it together that week."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com