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Crenshaw's Victory May Signal End of a Slump

August 27, 1985|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the 1984 Masters, Ben Crenshaw won a golf tournament Sunday. It didn't bother him in the least that he had to share the victory with Miller Barber. When a man is drowning, he doesn't mind if somebody gives him a hand.

While most members of the game's elite played in the World Series of Golf, Crenshaw and Barber teamed to win the $450,000 Jeremy Ranch Shootout in Park City, Utah. Each earned $30,000, which is almost twice as much as Crenshaw had won all year on the PGA tour.

Two weeks earlier, he was elated merely to make the cut in the PGA Championship at Englewood, Colo.

Standing over a 20-foot par putt on the 18th hole in the second round, Crenshaw wasn't assured of that.

Crenshaw's putter has been no more important to his career than, say, Merlin's wand was to his, but the magic had been missing this year.

Jeff Burrell, Crenshaw's caddy, stared at the grass under his feet, afraid to watch.

Crenshaw's girlfriend, Julie Forrest, crossed her fingers.

When the putt fell, just as all of Crenshaw's 20-footers seemed to do before this year, he kissed his putter.

"We're working on the weekend," Burrell told him. "You get a paycheck."

" You get a paycheck," Crenshaw told him.

"You need it as much as I do," his caddy said, laughing.

It was the second straight week that Crenshaw made the cut. The way he's played this year, that amounts to a hot streak. In his previous 10 tournaments, he made the cut in only two. In one of those, he was disqualified for signing an incorrect score card. He went eight straight weeks without earning a paycheck.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster, most of it down," Forrest said. The week before the PGA, Crenshaw made a double bogey in all four rounds of the Western Open. Some players go an entire year without making four double-bogeys. Still, he made the cut, finishing in a tie for 55th.

After returning to his hotel to pack, he watched the final holes of the tournament on television. As amateur Scott Verplank sank another putt on his way to the victory, Crenshaw said: "That's 21-year-old nerves for you. When I was 21, I'd stand over a putt and see the hole opening. I don't have that confidence anymore."

In his youth, Crenshaw seemed invulnerable.

It was not only that he won three straight NCAA championships at the University of Texas, but the hitch-up-his-pants flair with which he won them. As a sophomore, Crenshaw needed a 35-foot putt on the 18th green to save par and tie his teammate, and rival since their high school days in Austin, Tom Kite. When Kite heard the roar from the gallery around the green, he knew he had been victimized once again by Crenshaw's putter.

"I don't ever remember Ben missing a putt from the time he was 12 until he was 20," Kite once said.

At the NCAA tournament a year later, the University of Florida's Gary Koch thought he had broken Crenshaw's spell. Leading by a stroke on the back nine, Koch hit an approach shot to within three feet of the hole. The next player to hit was Crenshaw, whose approach landed on the green and rolled to within two feet of the hole. A shaken Koch missed his putt and settled for par. Crenshaw made his birdie putt and never looked back.

"He wasn't cocky, but he had an air about him," said Brent Buckman, Crenshaw's former college roommate and still a close friend. "He believed he could do anything with a golf club in his hand."

Later in that summer of 1973, Crenshaw earned his PGA tour card with a 12-shot victory over the rest of the field. In his first tournament as a professional, the Texas Open at San Antonio, Crenshaw shot 14 under par and won by two shots over Orville Moody. Two weeks later, Crenshaw finished second to Barber in the 144-hole World Open.

The golf world settled in to watch Gentle Ben challenge the Golden Bear.

There are a number of theories about why it hasn't happened. The death of Crenshaw's mother in 1974, which deeply troubled him, and a turbulent marriage were contributing factors, but the bottom line was that the birdie-eat-birdie professional tour is too competitive for anyone to dominate.

That isn't to say that Crenshaw became just another blond in the crowd. In his third full year on the tour, he was the second-leading money winner. He earned more than $200,000 in five different years. It took him only six years and seven months to win his first million, the same amount of time it took Tom Watson.

Realistically, Crenshaw accomplished everything in his first 10 years on the tour that he could have expected, except the thing he wanted most, a victory in a major tournament.

A golf historian, he would have liked nothing better than to have his name in the books he collects for his golf library. He was close more than once. Twice he was second in both the British Open and the Masters. He was tied for the lead on the 71st hole of the 1975 U.S. Open before hitting his tee shot into the water. In 1979, he lost in a playoff for the PGA championship.

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