World Golf Hall of Fame Profile: Ben Crenshaw
Perhaps no player better characterizes the words of golfer Willie Park that "a man who can putt is a match for anyone" than Ben Crenshaw. It was a line impressed in his mind at an early age by Harvey Penick, his teacher and mentor, and the man who first put a club in Crenshaw's hands. Crenshaw's mastery of the putter has earned him numerous accolades and now a well-deserved place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Crenshaw was introduced to the game by his father, Charlie, a schoolteacher. When Ben was eight, his father placed him under the guidance of Penick, who initially cut down a 7-iron for him, showed him a proper grip and watched as Crenshaw effortlessly whacked balls onto the green 75 yards away.
"Now let's go to the green and putt the ball into the hole," Penick told his new student.
"If you wanted it in the hole, why didn't you tell me the first time?" responded the first-time golfer according to Penick in his best-selling Little Red Book.
Finding the hole was never a problem for Crenshaw, blessed with a putting stroke that is the envy of all who play. Charlie Crenshaw Sr. remembers when he bought his teenage son the Wilson 8802 blade putter that came to be known simply as "Little Ben."
"It was just a putter in Harvey Penick's shop. Ben felt it and waggled it around for a while so I bought it for him. That club's been the best provider in the family," he said of the $20 club.
No golfer has ever holed more putts than Crenshaw, who perfected the art of what he calls "the dying putt."
"The ball which arrives at the hole with the proper speed has an infinitely greater chance of falling in the hole from any entrance. Harvey Penick taught me the value of this method at an early age. This is what he meant by 'giving luck a chance,'" wrote Crenshaw in The Legend of Bobby Jones: The Greatest of Them All.
Crenshaw's putting was so sensational it often overshadowed the rest of his game. His 19 PGA TOUR titles and exemplary record prove that his overall game was as accomplished as his putting.
Few golfers have joined the PGA TOUR with greater expectations to succeed than Crenshaw. Even fewer managed to live up to it. After winning 17 amateur events, including the NCAA title from 1971 to 1973 while an All-American at the University of Texas, Crenshaw had the strongest amateur resume since Jack Nicklaus. He faced a difficult decision whether to stay in school another year, play the Walker Cup and the U.S. Amateur or turn pro.
Surviving the cut in all four majors and all 11 PGA TOUR events in which he competed as an amateur, including a third place at the Heritage, convinced Ben to turn pro. Right from the start, Crenshaw seemed destined to exceed the lofty expectations. He lapped the field at qualifying school by 12, won his first start, and the following week finished second. He seemed preordained to win countless majors and challenge Nicklaus' record, but unexpectedly victories at the majors eluded him.
"Not winning a major for my first 11 years was difficult to accept given the number of good chances I had," Crenshaw ruefully concedes in his autobiography. "But in the end, the tough losses made my victories at Augusta even sweeter."
Crenshaw finally answered his critics by capturing his favorite event, the Masters. Lurking two shots behind heading into the final round in 1984, Crenshaw put on a putting exhibition the likes of which was seldom seen. Walking up the 18th fairway en route to a four-under 68, Crenshaw at last was triumphant on golf's largest stage.
Eleven years later, he won his second Masters seven days after he learned that Penick had died. Crenshaw showed up at Augusta with a heavy heart and his game in disarray. Golf's foremost putter entered the Masters ranked a rather pedestrian 69th in putting on the PGA TOUR that season, but a swing tip from his caddie, Carl Jackson, and one last putting tip from his mentor rejuvenated his game. Two weeks before Penick died, Crenshaw visited him and the ailing pro gave his 43-year-old student one final lesson from his bed.
Crenshaw's magical stroke returned. He mastered Augusta's slippery surfaces, surviving the tournament without making a single three-putt.
He authored a final-round 68 that included "a Harvey bounce" off the trees at the second and birdies at 16 and 17 to close one of the most improbable victories.
The scene on the 18th green after he holed his final putt and then bent over and released a week's worth of emotions is forever etched in every golfer's mind.
Crenshaw credited Penick's divine spirit as the 15th club in his bag during his extraordinary win. "I believe in fate. It was like someone put their hand on my shoulder this week and guided me through," Crenshaw said.