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Jim Murray

LOS ANGELES OPEN : Making His Pitch With His Heart

February 26, 1988|Jim Murray

He's probably everybody's favorite golfer. When he missed the putt to lose the playoff in the L.A. Open to T.C. Chen last year, probably all 40,000 of the gallery and most of the TV audience felt as if they had just lost the Open.

No one ever called Ben Hogan "Gentle Ben." But, to paraphrase Will Rogers, Ben Crenshaw probably never met a man who didn't like him.

But if golf has a love affair with Ben Crenshaw, it's requited. The game doesn't love Crenshaw any more than Crenshaw loves the game.

Not every athlete is an enthusiast for his sport, or even particularly knowledgeable about it. You can mention Babe Ruth to some ballplayers and they will look at you suspiciously and say "Who?" You can't be sure a football player will know who Red Grange was or what the names of the Four Horsemen were. Don't bet today's basketball players ever heard of Joe Fulks--or Bob Cousy, for all of that.

Ben Crenshaw can tell you who Laurie Auchterlonie was. Or what was the difference between Auld Tom Morris and young Tom Morris. He can tell you how Wild Bill Mehlhorn got his nickname. What Indian tribe Ky Laffoon belonged to. He still refers to the grand Bobby as "Mr. Jones," even though he has been dead for 20 years. You get the feeling he would remove his hat in the presence of Ben Hogan, get up to give his seat to Sam Snead.

Ben Crenshaw has such an extraordinary reverence for the game of golf, he sometimes seems too awed. Lots of guys tee it up in the Masters as if it were just another Kemper Open. But when Crenshaw was winning his Masters, his friends were half-afraid he might pick up as if it were a sacrilege, as if he got caught smoking in the Sistine chapel.

When Ben first came out on the tour, he had the biggest smile and longest swing in the game. Lots of guys go beyond parallel on the backswing. Crenshaw seemed to go around twice. It was hard to tell whether he was swinging the club--or vice versa.

Some people have trouble keeping their tee shots in the fairway. Ben had trouble keeping his in the course. "Reckless" is too meek a word to describe the slash he took at the ball. "Suicidal" comes closer. Ben also gave new meaning to the word "scramble." Ben found places on the golf course even the squirrels skipped.

But he had a putting stroke you could pour over waffles. Crenshaw didn't hit the ball, he caressed it. It ran for the hole like a scared rabbit. He led the tour with 1.743 putts per hole last year. He led it in 1982 with 28.65 putts per round. He birdied a hole 21% of the time last year.

But, what keeps Ben Crenshaw's name in lights is that his love of golf has kept him on its dogged trail over the years. In a game so starved for names that over-the-hill players often draw as well as their modern counterparts, Ben Crenshaw's marquee value remains constant. Sponsors always hope a Ben Crenshaw can be in their tournaments, first, and in the hunt, second.

Crenshaw rarely disappoints them. After 15 years on the tour, he is no longer just everybody's pet. He is a Star, maybe the Star.

He was third on the money list last year with $618,194. He is eighth on the all-time money list with slightly more than $3 million. He has won 13 tournaments, 43rd all-time.

He had a year last year that came within, perhaps, four shots of being the kind of year the superstars used to hang up, the Hogans, Sneads, Palmer, Nicklaus. He lost the L.A. Open in a playoff. He won the USF&G (New Orleans). He finished a shot out of the Masters, he was fourth in the U.S. Open, fourth in the British Open (two shots back) and seventh in the PGA (three shots back).

Although he still looks like something you would put rubber ducks into the bathtub for, Crenshaw is 36. History shows the great golfers play their best games between 36 and 41.

Ben thinks he is, maybe, two shots better than the Ben Crenshaw who came to the tour in 1973 and began firing at the pins (but often hitting I-5 instead of the green). The problem is, the tour is two shots better, too, and, as the Red Queen in Alice's Wonderland says, you have to run twice as fast to keep in the same place.

"I've shortened my swing," concedes Ben Crenshaw. "I try to put the ball where I want it to go, not where it wants to go."

It cuts down on the poison ivy. It also cuts down on the reloads and the double-bogeys. It means Ben can play a full round without taking his shoes off.

Will he be the one to beat in the L.A. Open again this year? He shot a 69 Thursday.

A golf tournament is getting as hard to win as a lottery or a card game on a riverboat. With the course playing easy, it's even more of a crapshoot.

Historian Crenshaw is not fazed. "Golf tournaments never have been easy to win," he explains. "Why, would you believe that great players like Harry Cooper and MacDonald Smith never won a major tournament. That's unbelievable."

The rest of the tour would agree with him. As soon as they find out who Harry Cooper and MacDonald Smith were and when they played.

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