As with all of us, Ben Crenshaw hasn’t been able to dodge the passage of time. His mane has gone grey, his neck has become creased and his face shows subtle signs of being weathered and wrinkled. Gravity has also set-in, with a modest paunch gathering around his midsection.
And yet, all things considered, Crenshaw remains a somewhat arresting figure even at age 62. He still retains most of the good looks that once made him the glamour boy of the PGA Tour. And still possessing an easy and purposeful gait, bronzed arms that reflect strength when he grips a club and a fluid enough swing, Crenshaw continues to give off an athletic vibe. Despite being in the sunset of his golf career, a tangible presence about him lingers on. Regardless of the years, there’s a perpetual youthful quality that sticks to him. He seems both older and forever young simultaneously. You sense in him a touch of the Benjamin Button syndrome.
Recently, I was afforded the chance to cover the Toshiba Classic, a Champions Tour event that was contested in Newport Beach, CA. In a pleasant and unexpected development, I was given complete freedom as to what I could write about. Given the opportunity to indulge myself, and after due consideration, I decided to focus on Crenshaw and follow him for an entire round. You can learn an awful lot about a man while observing him over the course of 18 holes.
Some might find it curious that I selected Crenshaw to hone in on. After all, Ben hasn’t played any stellar or notable golf for quite awhile. At this stage, having moved into his seventh decade, Crenshaw would be considered a longshot to do any serious damage on the Champions circuit. It’s hard to imagine Ben going toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Fred Couples, Kenny Perry and Bernhard Langer.
So why, you may ask, make Crenshaw a focal point?
That’s easy. Not many golfers have ever had the “It” factor going for them. But count Crenshaw among the rare few that did. At his apex, Crenshaw looked to have been created by Central Casting. Blond and dynamic, charismatic and with plenty of swashbuckler in him, Crenshaw was a marquee name that galleries flocked to see. Ben almost always provide entertaining theatre, lots of it riveting. Even his occasional unpredictability on the course only seemed to add to his vast appeal. Crenshaw’s Texas backgound and slight drawl provided additional fascination and romanticism about him.
Crenshaw burst on the scene with a vengeance and never looked back. He won a remarkable three NCAA individual championships as a Longhorn and then took the golf world by storm by winning his first PGA event, at the time only the second player to ever do so. Crenshaw would go onto win 19 Tour titles including a pair of Masters’ crowns, the latter of which was an inspiring and touching victory that honored his longtime mentor Harvey Penick, who had died a week before.
Crenshaw played golf in a way that commanded attention, soaring drives, enviable mid-iron play and a short game that appeared to have been descended from the gods. From in tight, say 130-yards on in, Ben was money.
But it was what he did with the flatstick that separated him from the pack. That which made him singularly special and a veritible wizard. Put a putter in Crenshaw’s hands and it become an awesome and wondrous weapon. It was as if he spoke to it and it listened intently to his every word. With a delicate and exquiste grip that epitomized feel, Crenshaw became a sovereign of the greens, rolling balls with such touch you wondered if perhaps he’s been a safecracker in a previous life. A caressed Crenshaw putt was an artistic and sublime thing to behold.
So I wanted to find out, did Crenshaw still have even a remnant of the “Wow” factor he once owned? Was he still a fan favorite, was the magneticism still there? And what about his game? Could Ben still get it around the course? How about the touch, the putting? Did some of the magic remain in those once golden hands of his?
Before his round, I caught up with Crenshaw on the practice putting green. He was decked out in bright white pants, an agua green striped shirt, white and black golf shoes, and a light tan golf cap that fit snuggly. Somehow he seemed a wee bit smaller than the 5-foot-9 at which he’s listed.
Intially, he was by his lonesome, working on putts from varying distances. And right away, you could tell his putting stroke hadn’t deserted him. Almost as if on cue, he drained three straight putts from about eight feet. Now, that’s pure I thought. The hands still appeared feathery, the stroke smooth, the touch intact. The blade of the putter not so much contacting the ball as much as kissing it. It was good stuff.
While Crenshaw was putting away, the celebrated Fred Couples casually approached him. A warm smile came to Crenshaw and they began kibitzing. Their chat was easy and comfortable, interspersed with a few laughs. Moments later, Mark O’Mera sauntered over and joined in the conversation. You got the impression that Crenshaw was like a magnet, his winning and engaging personality drawing people in. Crenshaw’s popularity with the public is well-known but that likeability quotient obviously translates over to his fellow pros as well.
Crenshaw’s 12:35 tee time was rapidly approaching. Ben headed towards the 10th hole, where he would be starting his round on the backside. Crenshaw’s playing partners on this day were solid veterans Gil Morgan and Bob Gilder. While waiting to get started, Crenshaw exchanged pleasantries with each, his talk with Morgan especially collegial.
When Crenshaw was introduced, a warm and fairly loud wave of applause greeted him. He gestured in acknowlegement. Soon after, he set-up with a slightly closed stance, triggered a waggle that’s part of his pre-shot routine and fired away. His swing flowed, ample elements of rhythm and smoothness to it. The arc of his takeaway and downswing wasn’t bad either. The result was a solid drive. But Crenshaw’s approach shot was indifferent and short right. He flipped a decent chip shot to within makeable range, but pulled the putt and left with a bogey. “Not the way to start,” he chuckled to a nearby marshal.
But things quickly got much better and that’s because his putter began to percolate. He dropped a short putt into the cup’s side entrance on 11 for a nifty birdie. He then immediately followed that up by draining a sweet rolling putt for another three at the 12th. Those in the gallery were witnessing some vintage Crenshaw magic.
Perhaps the highlight of his round came at the 15th hole when, after leaving himself a transcontinental putt on the green’s lower tier, he gracefully sent the ball on its way. Immediately it began tracking perfectly and as it rose over the hump in the green, it zeroed in on the cup as if directed by a homing device. When the ball dived neatly into the hole, the crowd erupted, truly marveling at Crenshaw’s flatstick prowess. Ben celebrated with a broad grin before doffing his cap.
Before he was finished, Ben would tack on two more birdies with a kick-in putt at the 1st hole and another short knock at No. 2. But much of the encouraging work that Crenshaw authored was undermined by five counterbalancing bogeys. He signed for an even par 71, not bad, but disappointment and an air of missed opportunities hung over that score. The truth is, Ben should have gone much lower.
So where was Crenshaw deficient? On balance, his putting was strong, so the fault certainly didn’t lie there. His driving, however, was erratic. Though he hits a picturesque high draw, and is certainly capable of making solid contact, Crenshaw isn’t consistently reliable from the tee. He overcooked or snapped too many drives left, which were accompanied by comments from their originator like, “Oh, no,” “Gosh darn it,” or “Ahhhhhhh.” Length off the tee, or lack thereof, was also an issue for Ben.
But just as frustrating was Ben’s troublesome knack for getting loose with relatively benign mid-to-short iron shots. He hit a partcularly wretched and thin pitch over the green at the par-5 3rd hole which led to an ugly and inexcusable bogey. Crenshaw’s ball-striking could have used an upgrade. Mistakes from the tee and fairway were too plentiful to totally overcome.
Yet, no matter how he may fare on the links, Crenshaw’s connection with the public remains strong and undiminished. Throughout the course of his round, he took the time to interact and delight his followers. Before he had finished, Ben had bumped fists with a small fan, chatted with another youngster while waiting for a tee to clear, hugged a few well-wishers, visited with obvious acquaintances at various intervals, made nice with numerous tournament personnel and shared enough grins and smiles to please almost everyone.
Crenshaw has a politician’s feel to him but without the phoniness or pretension. His byplay with others is geniune and comes from a sincere heart. People naturally gravitate to him because he exudes an accessible and down-to-earth vibe. He has a lot of populist in him.
One thing of which I was unaware was that Crenshaw smokes. No big deal really but for some reason, it surprised me. What was interesting was that he fired up the heaters regardless of circumstance, so it didn’t seem to be a totally stress-related thing. And no matter the inherent risks in lighting up, I had to admit Crenshaw looked kind of rugged as he was puffing away. He reminded me of the Marlboro Man, smoke drifting from lips in a most manly fashion.
Before wrapping up, a few more observations, comments and facts should be mentioned about my afternoon spent watching Crenshaw.
Ben, though effective in remaining under control and keeping his emotions in check, isn’t exactly a sphinx if vexed. When frustrated, annoyed or disappointed in his play, a look will come over him that reveals his exasperation, a slow boil simmering inside. Crenshaw is not above grabbing a balky club and forcefully shoving it back into his bag, as if to say, take that you offending stick!
There was what I projected to be a poignant moment when gazing at Crenshaw on the elevated tee of the second hole. He was off to the side by himself, appearing lost in reflective thought. He stood there, peering into the distance, but it seemed he wasn’t so much looking down the fairway as he was reminiscing about something in the past. Perhaps recalling a splendid career having gone by in a flash. A lion in winter perched above a domian that he once ruled, but no longer did.
There were a couple of times when Crenshaw shot me a more than cursory glance. I was positioned in such a manner, with no one else around, that there was no mistaking he was looking at me. Perhaps he noticed me scribbling away or that I’d been following him the entire day. Who knows? But for whatever reason, he did take note of my presence. We definitely exchanged eye contact.
Alas, Crenshaw faltered on his subsequent rounds. He went 75, and then 76 over the weekend, finishing way back in a deflating tie for 79th. In four Champion events thus far in 2014, Ben has risen no higher on the board than 41st. Those are discouraging results and point to a painful reality that must be faced. Though he still can putt, Ben Crenshaw probably won’t ever again be a major factor in a pro golf event.
But somehow that doesn’t matter. Even though his overall game is ebbing and lacks staying power, he will forever remain a force. The “It” factor, the aura surrounding him will never really leave or dissipate. It was a worthwhile and memorable experience watching him play. Ben Crenshaw will always be deserving of a look. He’s so much more than the number he now puts down on a scorecard.
Source: pgatour.com/champions/Players/Crenshaw,Ben/Season/Toshiba Classic.