BIOGRAPHY: Ben D. Crenshaw

Although some professional golfers have won more major tournaments and others have collected more in winnings, Ben Crenshaw remains after thirty-five years on tour one of the most popular and talented players on the grueling PGA circuit. His all-American looks, charisma, and grace under pressure have made him a gallery favorite from his days at the University of Texas, where he was heralded as the next Jack Nicklaus, to the 1984 Masters Tournament, where he ended a decade of frustration to capture his first major championship title. His second victory at Augusta in April of 1995 secured his place in golf history. Ben Daniel Crenshaw was born on January 11, 1952 in Austin, Texas to Pearl (Johnson) Crenshaw, an elementary school teacher from Tazewell, Virginia, and Charles Edward Crenshaw IV, an attorney who had worked as an assistant to State Attorney General Price Daniel. The Crenshaws gave Ben his middle name in honor of Daniel, who later became a United States senator and governor of Texas. Ben Crenshaw has two siblings: Bonnie, who is ten years his senior, and Charles Edward V, who is one year older. Members of the family treasured Pearl Crenshaw, and her death of a heart attack in 1974, during Ben's second year on the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour, traumatized them.

A scratch golfer himself, Charlie Crenshaw introduced his son to the game at the Country Club of Austin. "I got exposed to golf by riding around in a cart while Dad played," he told Louis Sabin in an interview for the Washington Post's PARADE magazine (June 2, 1974). "When I finally got to play regularly, all my dad said was I'd have to learn how to play the right way, and by the rules." Ben learned those lessons quickly, winning his first tournament - the Casis Elementary Open - in the fourth grade with a score of 96. Continuing to improve, he shot a 74 for eighteen holes when he was ten, and three years later qualified for the state junior tournament - a major event in Texas - with an impressive score of 69. Perhaps overly confident, he then neglected golf in order to spend more time with his girlfriend, but after failing to make the cut for the next year's state junior tournament he applied himself more diligently to his game. At fifteen he won that championship, a feat he repeated in 1968, as well as the first of three consecutive Austin City championships, and in 1968 he took his first national title when he outperformed the field at the Jaycees Junior Championship. Photo by Phil Sheldon

"I was so lucky in having the competition to play against. There is no substitute for that," he admitted to Herbert Warren Wind in the NEW YORKER (June 10, 1985). "When you grow up with a Tom Kite in the same town, and you play against him from the age of ten on, it's bound to help." While in high school he also played other future professionals, including Bruce Lietzke and Bill Rogers. Nevertheless, Harvey Penick, the house pro at the Country Club of Austin and a well-known instructor for over four decades, was even more influential in shaping and improving his game. Crenshaw never took formal lessons from Penick, but he had always turned to him whenever he had a problem with his game that he could not work out himself. "He stressed the natural moves - what was natural for me," Crenshaw recalled in the NEW YORKER (May 13, 1974). "He never tried to change any particular part of my swing. He doesn't believe in too much analysis. Sometimes he'd just ask me what my shots were doing - if they were going left or right - and then he'd say, 'Go right ahead. Keep playing.'"

At Austin High School, Crenshaw did not limit his activities to golf: he broad jumped and played guard in basketball, quarterback in football, and catcher in baseball. But golf continued to exert the strongest pull on him, and throughout high school he played up to thirty-six holes a day, ten months a year. His hard work paid off when he was a senior. Although an attack of bursitis kept him from competing in the U.S. Amateur, he finished thirty-second in the field at his first U.S. Open - ahead of such seasoned professionals as Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - and tied John Mahaffey for the low amateur medal. After that stunning performance, Lee Trevino, with whom Crenshaw had been paired for a round in that tournament, termed him "the best eighteen-year-old golfer (he had) ever seen." Crenshaw then went on to win eighteen of the nineteen tournaments he entered that year.

Awarded a golf scholarship, Crenshaw entered the University of Texas in 1970 with the intention of majoring in business administration. His presence and performance served as a catalyst for his Longhorn teammates at the four-day National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament at the Tucson National Golf Club. Playing a whirlwind round of golf on the final day, he led his team past a University of Florida squad that seemed to wilt under the Longhorns' pressure, and he captured the individual title - the first freshman ever to do so - with a record fifteen-under-par 273 for the tournament. He went on that year to win five other championships, to place fifth at the U.S. Amateur, and to tie for twenty-seventh at the U.S. Open against stiff professional competition. For his accomplishments, he was named to the 1971 All-American collegiate golf team.

" Impressed by his abilities, critics of the game classed him with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Unlike most golfers, Crenshaw draws the club back past parallel, but his smooth downswing and strong legs combine to give him great distance on his drives. The ease with which he routinely sinks difficult putts or saves balls in traps or hazards also seemed to warrant comparing him with the masters of the sport. Crenshaw justified the critics' high praise at the 1972 NCAA tournament at Cape Coral, Florida, where he sank a thirty-foot putt on the final hole to share the first-place prize with his teammate and rival, Tom Kite. In addition to capturing ten more championship titles in 1972, including the Trans-Mississippi Amateur and the Porter Cup, Crenshaw scored a 288 at the U.S. Amateur  to tie Mark Hayes for second place and was named to the U.S. World Amateur Cup team. He fared almost as well against the pros, placing nineteenth and winning low-amateur honors at his first Masters Tournament and fighting to an amazing tie for third at the Heritage Classic in South Carolina that fall.

"All through college, I've never had anything on my mind except golf. I can't get interested in anything else." (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 3, 1972) Nevertheless, he hesitated to join the pro tour before finishing his studies because he wanted a college degree in case his golfing skills failed him. But after clinching his third NCAA title at Springwater, Oklahoma on June 23, 1973, and winning ten other championships that year, Crenshaw could no longer resist the temptation to turn professional. In mid-August 1973 he entered the mandatory PGA Players School competition, and three days later overwhelmed the field with a twelve-stroke lead during the 144-hole qualifier to receive his approved player's card.

Few players in the history of golf have made a more auspicious debut than Ben Crenshaw. In his first appearance in a professional tournament, the seventy-two-hole $125,000 San Antonio-Texas Open in November 1973, he played with the poise of a veteran. On the last day, after shrugging off a watery bogey on the Woodlake Golf Course's ninth hole and twice extricating himself from ties with George Archer and Orville Moody, he finally finished the tournament with a fourteen-under-par 270 to capture the $25,000 first prize.

Just three weeks later, Crenshaw injected new life into the eight-round $500,000 World Open in Pinehurst, North Carolina. He made his presence felt in the sixth round, shooting a seven-under-par 64 in a blustering wind - one of the best rounds, according to experts, played in fifty years on that demanding and often-tested course. That score brought him from a distant twenty-fifth into serious contention with a tie for second place. Although he maintained a nip-and-tuck battle with Miller Barber on the final day, a bad swing at a tee shot on the par-five sixteenth hole resulted in a bogey and he lost by one stroke. In his account of the tournament for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (November 26, 1973), Dan Jenkins described the rookie as "a thrilling personality with devastating talent and potential," a view that Miller Barber shared. "He's the best that's come along since Nicklaus," Barber said. "He's gonna be the new gunner. I knew when I beat him that I'd done beat somebody."

"In just six weeks on the tour, Crenshaw captured $76,749 in prize money. His seemingly effortless game and easy-going manner earned the respect of the other pros, and his boyish good looks attracted a faithful following of young women groupies dubbed "Ben's Bunnies" or "Ben's Wrens." But trying too hard to fulfill others' expectations after his spectacular start as a pro, he faltered, finishing twenty-fourth at the Masters and missing the cut at the U.S. Open. Although he took two second-place prizes and finished in the top ten three other times in 1974, he again failed to make the thirty-six hole cut at the U.S. Open, and according to Herbert Warren Wind in the NEW YORKER (May 13, 1974), played "perhaps his least solid golf of the past four years." His most impressive showing in 1975, at the U.S. Open in Medinah, Illinois, resulted in a tie with three other players for third when, after making a heartbreaking shot into the water on the seventeenth hole, he missed the playoff with Lou Graham and John Mahaffey by one stroke. The ranks of Ben's Wrens thinned, and the media focused less frequently on the PGA's highly touted golden boy.

With some help from Bob Toski, a professional golf instructor, Crenshaw began to regain his confidence and with it his magic. "He made some minor changes in my swing," Crenshaw told Bob Sherrill in an interview for PEOPLE (April 12, 1976), "but mainly he worked on my mental attitude. I was about five inches from becoming an outstanding golfer - that's the distance between my left ear and my right one." Once again fighting his way to the top, he finally nabbed his second professional win at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am Open in Pebble Beach, California on January 25, 1976 with a seven-under-par 281, defeating Jack Nicklaus, the leader going into the fourth round by ten strokes.

The very next week, Crenshaw netted $46,000 and won his second straight tournament at the Hawaiian Open in Honolulu. His four-round total of 270 (eighteen under par) broke the Waialae Country Club's course record and reestablished him as one of the game's brightest young stars. Later that year, Crenshaw captured the first-place purse at the $150,000 Ohio King's Island Open and went on to take his first European title with a victory at the Irish Open at Portmarnock. At the end of 1976, after adding a second-place finish at the Masters to his honors, he ranked second only to Nicklaus on the PGA's annual money list.

Although victories at the four major tournaments on the PGA tour - the U.S. Open, the Masters Tournament, the British Open and the PGA Championship - continued to elude him over the next few years, Crenshaw added a number of championships to his name, including the $200,000 Colonial National Invitational in 1977, the Phoenix Open and the National Team Championship (with George Burns) in 1979, and the Anheuser-Busch Classic and the Walt Disney World Team Championship in 1980. In addition, at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in 1978 and 1981 and at the Western Open and PGA Championship in 1979, among other tourneys, he came agonizingly close to victory, only to take second place after in the sudden-death playoffs. As a result of his consistent game, from 1976 to 1981 he often earned over $200,000, and never less than $100,000, on the tour.

Perhaps Crenshaw's most disappointing near-misses during those years occurred in the British Open. As an ardent golf historian, he had read everything he could about the many classic matches fought out on the famous golf links of the British Isles, especially accounts of the 1926 British Open, in which the legendary golfer Bobby Jones, whom Crenshaw idolizes, took the title in his first attempt. Quickly advancing from twenty-eighth place at his first British Open in 1974, he took third in the Open at Turnberry three years later and finished in a four-way tie for second behind Jack Nicklaus at St. Andrews in 1978. His special reverence for the British Open only intensified his anguish in 1979: he was in strong contention until the seventy-first hole where he made a double-bogey six to lose to the Spaniard Severiano Ballesteros.

In spite of those frustrations, Crenshaw returns to the British Isles almost every year to play in the British Open; to explore the lesser-known courses in England and Scotland, his detailed knowledge of which, according to Herbert Warren Wind, "bowls over British golf authorities"; or occasionally to guide tourists around the more famous courses while recounting, stroke by stroke, some memorable holes played at celebrated matches. He explained his love for the British golf links in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE (July 18, 1982): "Back home, our courses are built with bulldozers, with smooth fairways and sculptured contours. Here the links courses were created by the interaction of rain, wind, snow, tides, erosion, even sheep and burrowing animals. Here it's man against the elements, golf in its natural state."

"In 1982, after taking the Mexico City Open and tying for second at the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Melbourne, Ben Crenshaw once again went into a slump, missing the cut for the PGA Championship at Southern Hills and dropping to eighty-third on the 1982 money list. With confidence in his swing shattered, he left the tour in August to reassess his game. "People were telling me all kinds of things and trying to help," he told Sarah Pileggi in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (May 14, 1984). "But by then it was going in one ear and out the other . . . I was a basket case." With the help of Charlie Crenshaw, Harvey Penick, and his former college roommate Brent Buckman, Ben Crenshaw realized that in trying to make his unorthodox swing conform to the classic model he had abandoned the form that was most natural for him. Once he stopped analyzing his swing and allowed his instinct and muscles to work for him, he was able to concentrate on his aim and to hit the ball unerringly again. With his faith in himself renewed, he returned to the tour to tie Tom Kite for second at the 1983 Masters Tournament in April and to win the Byron Nelson Classic at Irving, Texas a few weeks later.

As one of the best and most personable players of his generation never to have won a major title, Crenshaw had the entire golfing world behind him at the 1984 Masters as he took a one-stroke lead with a first-round 67 and then dropped two shots behind Tom Kite's nine-under-par 207 over the next thirty-six holes. In spite of the enormous pressure, Crenshaw continued to play smoothly during the fourth round. With a ten-foot putt for a birdie on the ninth hole, he moved into the back side with a three-under-par 33 to take a one-stroke lead over Kite and a two-stroke lead over Larry Nelson.

When Crenshaw sank a seemingly impossible sixty-foot putt on the tenth hole, his opponents were visibly shaken. Using an iron on the twelfth tee, Nelson splashed into the creek to take a double bogey. Moments later, after Crenshaw birdied the twelfth, Kite also found the water with a seven-iron: he holed out with a triple bogey that shattered his hopes for victory. Playing conservatively, Crenshaw hit safe tee shots to the fat part of the green on the thirteenth hole for par and on the fifteenth for a birdie rather than gambling on his woods or irons for a more spectacular eagle and took par on the fourteenth hole with a fifteen-foot second putt. Although a bogey on the seventeenth narrowed his lead to two strokes over Tom Watson, who had finished the round, Crenshaw insured his victory with a perfect three-wood shot into the eighteenth fairway and a five iron onto the green, twenty feet from the cup. He holed out with two putts for par to take the title by two strokes with a final score of 277 (eleven under par). For winning that tournament, his first major victory in his eleven years on the tour, he received the prized green blazer awarded to all Masters champions.

Following his l984 Masters win, Crenshaw's play slowly deteriorated over the next eighteen months. He was going through some changes in his personal life, having divorced from his wife, Polly, in the fall of l984.

In late l985, while taking a routine physical, Crenshaw was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. Once the problem was treated for several months and brought under control, Ben's play slowly started to improve. Ben married the former Julie Forrest in November, l985 and began l986 with renewed enthusiasm for the game.

Crenshaw was in the thick of the U.S. Open battle at Shinnecock Hills in June of l986, and briefly held the lead before dropping back into a tie for sixth place. He ended his victory drought a few weeks later with a win at the Buick Open in Flint, Michigan and later followed up that triumph with a win at the Vantage Championship (the predecessor to the Tour Championship) at Oak Hills in San Antonio.

Crenshaw's play remained strong through the late eighties as he added victories at New Orleans (l987) and Doral (l988) to his record. He remained one of the leading money winners on tour right through the end of the decade.

As the nineties began, Crenshaw continued to add tournament victories to his resume with a win at Colonial, his second victory there, in l990. While Ben's play was at times erratic through the mid-90's he currently has a streak of four straight years with tour wins which includes victories at the Western Open in l992, the Nestle Bay Hill Invitational in l993, the Freeport McMoRan Classic in l994 and the Masters in l995.

Crenshaw opened the l995 season with a third place finish in the Tournament of Champions, and while he played finished fifth at Phoenix, little went well for him prior to the Masters in early April. Shortly after finishing a practice round on the Sunday preceding the tournament, Ben was informed that his lifelong friend and mentor Harvey Penick had passed away at the age of 90. This was the beginning of a very emotional week for Crenshaw.

After flying back to Austin on Wednesday to serve as a pallbearer at Mr. Penick's funeral, Ben opened the tournament the next day with a solid 70 in a light rain. Under sunny skies and perfect conditions on Friday, Crenshaw had a bogey free round of 67 to move within two strokes of the lead.

On Saturday, Crenshaw continued his steady play with a 69 and entered Sunday's final round tied for the lead with Brian Henninger. As usual, Sunday at Augusta provided many stories and by the time Crenshaw stood at the 16th tee, he was tied for the lead with Davis Love who was in the clubhouse at 13 under par. Crenshaw called on all of his skill and knowledge of Augusta and hit a solid six iron to within four feet on the sixteenth hole and then sank the putt for a one shot lead. He followed that with a ten foot birdie putt on the seventeenth hole and walked up the eighteenth fairway following a perfect tee shot with a two stroke lead. Crenshaw missed the green with his second and chipped his third shot ten feet above the hole. He nursed his putt to within two feet and carefully stroked it in for a one shot victory. The emotional scene on the eighteenth green with Crenshaw and his caddy Carl Jackson will never be forgotten by golf fans.

Sandy-haired, blue-eyed Ben Crenshaw, who stands five feet nine inches tall and weighs 160 pounds, has an easy-going manner both on and off the golf links that has earned him the nickname of "Gentle Ben." A dedicated student of golf history and of golf course architecture, he is one of the best-known members of the Golf Collectors' Society. In addition to the miniature clubs, golf painting and sculpture, and memorabilia that he has acquired over the years, he owns about 800 golf books, many of them rare editions printed in Britain at the turn of the century. He has also written extensively about the game and contributed an introduction to a United States Golf Association 1982 special edition of Sir Walter Simpson's classic THE ART OF GOLF.

In 1991 Ben received the highest honor the USGA bestows when he received the Bob Jones Award. The award was especially meaningful for Crenshaw since Jones has always been his idol and model in the game.

In recent years Crenshaw has spent considerable time away from the PGA Tour developing his golf course architecture business. Along with partner, Bill Coore, the firm of Coore & Crenshaw has done restoration work on some of the finest courses in the country including Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas and Brook Hollow Country Club in Dallas, Texas. They have added nine new holes at both Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma and at Onion Creek Country Club in Austin, Texas.

Coore & Crenshaw have also built championship courses throughout the United States including The Plantation Club at the Kapalua Bay Resort on Maui, Hawaii, the Crenshaw/Coore course at the Barton Creek Club in Austin, Texas and The Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen, Nebraska.

Yet another major chapter began to unfold in Ben's life in October, 1997. The PGA of America named Ben to captain the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team in matches to be held at The Country Club in Brookline. Ben had first been exposed to The Country Club in 1968 when he visited Boston to play in the U.S. Junior Championship.

The 1999 Ryder Cup competition will long be remembered as one of the most exciting in the history of the matches. The Europeans jumped to a 6-2 lead after the first day, and continued their outstanding play on day two. They held a 10-6 lead going into the singles competition.

Captain Crenshaw sensed the momentum might be turning on Saturday afternoon, and while the U.S. team did not gain any ground on the second day, he felt confident going into Sunday. He closed his Saturday evening press conference with a statement that stunned the media. "I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That's all I'm gonna say." He then got up and walked out of the press room.

Indeed, fate had always been kind to Americans at The Country Club, beginning with Francis Quimet's victory over England's best players in the 1913 U.S. Open, right through the Curtis Strange win over Nick Faldo in the 1988 U.S. Open.

Ben loaded the U.S. lineup with some of their strongest players up front to try and even the score as early as possible on Sunday. The strategy worked to perfection as the first six U.S. players registered convincing victories in their singles matches. A key win by Jim Furyk over Sergio Garcia and a comeback halve by Justin Leonard late in the day proved to be the difference. At the end of the matches the United States team had earned a hard-fought 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 victory. Ben's team had achieved the most stunning comeback in Ryder Cup history.

While the Crenshaw career certainly reach pinnacles with his 1995 Masters win and the 1999 Ryder Cup matches, Ben looks forward to the next few years with great anticipation. He continues to work with his design partner Bill Coore on two or three projects annually. In January, 2002 Ben became eligible for the senior tour.

Ben is married to the former Julie Ann Forrest (since November, 1985), and they have three daughters, Katherine Vail, born October 6, 1987, Claire Susan, born April 23, 1992, and Anna Riley, born February 12, 1998. They reside in Austin, Texas.

Copyright 2002.  All rights reserved.  Revised: October 27, 2008
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