For a while during the World Open at Pinehurst last November it looked as if Ben Crenshaw might win his second professional golf tournament in a row, and seeing as how he was only eight years old, or something like that, several members of the press got so excited they almost dropped their Olivettis. Writers adore instant heroes, as civilization knows, and now they had Crenshaw with his bleached mod hair and a smile like the nice young man who sacks your groceries, not to forget a long, powerful swing that looks as if an artist might have drawn it after studying the finest movements of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and the Rolex GMT-Master. Already, Crenshaw seemed to be the best thing to happen to golf since beltless slacks.
Anyhow, down in North Carolina on a certain afternoon in the press room of Pinehurst Country Club, a British journalist was in the process of ad-libbing his daily report to London by phone when suddenly he stopped, blushed and glanced over at a friend.
"Oh, no!" said the Englishman. "I was just dictating about Crenshaw, and I think I used...flaxen-haired."
Maybe you have to have a writer's worries about clichés to appreciate the humor in that, but the point is that Ben Crenshaw had scarcely had time to take the wrapping paper and ribbons off his golf game as a touring pro and he was a media problem.
A lot of questions were posed by this situation, questions that have been troubling if not infuriating people for years. People such as touring professionals, sponsors, gallery marshals, courtesy-car drivers, newspaper and magazine readers and even authors. Questions such as the following:
Why is Ben Crenshaw flaxen-haired while Frank Beard is somber?
Why is Ben Crenshaw "Gentle Ben" while Miller Barber is "Mister X"?
Why is Ben Crenshaw's facial expression described by the press as "angelic" while Bert Yancey's is "stoic"?
Why is Ben Crenshaw "warm and friendly" and "the next Arnold Palmer" and "a potential Jack Nicklaus," while Tommy Aaron is "the quiet, bespectacled Tommy Aaron," while Charles Coody is "former Masters champion Charles Coody," while Dave Stockton is "determined Dave Stockton," and while dozens of others on the tour are as invisible as a poltergeist except for the Amana caps they wear?
It is impossible to answer these questions to everybody's satisfaction. People are still trying to figure out why Arnold Palmer owned the 1960s. If Crenshaw winds up owning the last half of the 1970s—as many predict—it will result from his having done pretty much what Palmer did. He will have to win consistently, sometimes spectacularly, and he will have to remain the "nice guy" that everyone who either knows him, has seen him, or simply observed him, insists he is.
Charm, charisma, appeal. Some golfers have it built in, like a Palmer or a Lee Trevino, and others acquire it, as Nicklaus and Ben Hogan did, by winning. Crenshaw undoubtedly has it built in, Palmer style, but he appears to be starting out with even more golfing ability than Palmer had.
In trying to explain why Crenshaw is already so popular, you have to start with how he looks. First of all, he is 22 but could pass for 17. This means he is a "kid" out there with all those grown-ups. Crowds love a kid.
Next, Crenshaw is small. He is no midget, of course, at 5'9" and 165, and he has a strong, well-proportioned, athletic frame with exceptionally sturdy legs, which helps account for the distance he gets on many of his shots. But compared to a Nicklaus or a Tern Weiskopf he is little. The wee Texan, as Hogan was the Wee Icemon. Crowds love a wee kid.
Now comes the "boyish good looks." The angelic stuff. Crenshaw has this friendly, warming smile with sincerity written all over it. The smile sits beneath the mop of long, bleached hair—campus hair, somebody called it. And blond. And the hair is not too long. Crowds love a wee blond kid whose hair is not too long.
The world of big-time golf first got an inkling about Crenshaw back in 1970 during the U.S. Open at Hazeltine. He was 18, and as he says, "Boy, was I lost."
Thursday at Hazeltine was a day when the wind blew 40 mph, and Tony Jacklin's 71 was the low score. Crenshaw's 75 was one of the better totals of the opening round, so he was asked to the press tent. In he came, a bewildered teenager. He sat down at a table with a microphone before him and stared out at the media types. Dozens of them. He had no idea what he was supposed to do.
A fellow in the front row tried to be helpful.
"Ben, would you go through your card, please?" the man said, meaning for Crenshaw to describe how he played each hole, the clubs he hit, the length of the putts, and so on.
"Sure," said Crenshaw, looking down at a copy of his scorecard. And then he read into the mike:
The laughter interrupted him, and Crenshaw quickly caught on. He looked up from the scorecard and out at the crowd, embarrassed but smiling.
"I didn't mean to insinuate that none of you can read," he said. Crowds love a blond, wee, embarrassed kid with a sense of humor.
None of this would matter, of course, if Crenshaw had not come to the pro tour with the greatest amateur record since Nicklaus and the greatest amateur buildup since Nicklaus. It would matter even less if Gentle Ben had not burst onto the tour and immediately proved he could play with the world's best.
Anyone familiar with his amateur record should have known that Crenshaw would not waste much time establishing himself as a professional star. His game was too good. As a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Texas he won the NCAA championship, the only freshman ever to do so. He captured five other tournaments that year, 1971, including the Eastern and Southern Amateurs. In 1972 he won the NCAA again, and this time he added 10 other victories, including the Trans-Miss and the Porter Cup. Although he was a heavy favorite to take the U.S. Amateur, he had to settle for a tie for second behind Vinny Giles. But there he was, only a college sophomore, and already he was being called our best amateur.
The final proof of his talent came last year. For a record third time he won the NCAA, and again he added 10 other championships, including the Western, Southern, Northeast and Sunnehanna. Indeed, he won 11 of the 15 tournaments he entered.
And then it was time for him to make a decision. He was forced by the rules to decide whether he intended to turn pro and try out for the PGA's qualifying school before the U.S. Amateur and the Walker Cup matches. If he waited to become a pro in order to try to win the Amateur he would have to wait a whole year.
Crenshaw felt ready for the major league. Not just because of his amateur successes but because he had played in a few tour events as an amateur and had always done well. Done well? That's too modest. He finished third in the Heritage at Harbour Town, for example, and seventh in the Houston Open at Champions. He was 19th in his first Masters two years ago, and last year he was the sensation of Augusta during the second round. Paired with Nicklaus, he gained 10 strokes on Jack during a nine-hole stretch, taking over the tournament lead at one point. Eventually he finished 24th. And then there were all the low scores he kept shooting when he sought out famous old courses during his amateur travels. Like a 67 at Pine Valley and a 65 at Shinnecock Hills.
"When I get on one of those old courses, particularly in the East, I sort of go into a trance," he says. "I wander around seeing myself in the National Open of 1901, or something. I sure hated to miss out on winning the U.S. Amateur, but I had to get on the tour because I think I belong."
Crenshaw quickly started proving it in the PGA school, which is a 144-hole grind that has seen many a good player fail, including Peter Oosterhuis, David Graham and Eddie Pearce. Crenshaw led the school by 12 strokes, as if it were held at Austin Country Club instead of Perdido Bay and The Dunes in Myrtle Beach, one of the toughest of courses. In the last round at The Dunes he shot a 68, with a six-under 30 on the back nine. In the Texas Open, his first start as an official PGA cardholder, he won. Yeah. He just went out there in San Antonio with all those George Archers, lured lots of the gallery right away from them—including some coeds from Trinity University who were outfitted in T shirts that said BEN'S BUNNIES—and he won. In two other tournaments since then he has almost won, finishing second to Miller Barber in the World Open at Pinehurst and second to Johnny Miller in the Tucson Open.
In short, Crenshaw has been a pro less than six months, and already he has a first, two seconds and about $100,000 in prize money. He has established himself as a name, a draw, a sponsor's pet.
But more than that, Crenshaw is now being talked about among the players and press alike as having such lavish things in his possession as "the best swing on the tour" and "the greatest attitude since Nicklaus" and "the perfect grip." He has what the pros call a long swing. It is graceful but full of force, which comes from a good grip, timing, and the strength in his legs. He takes the club all the way back—just past horizontal, as they say in the instruction articles—and he brings it all the way through.
Crenshaw was taught the game by two men, his father Charles, who is a lawyer in Austin, and Harvey Penick, whose reputation as one of golf's best teachers has spanned four decades.
"My swing is basically the same one I've always had, and so is my grip," Crenshaw says. "I can't remember anybody ever changing much, except for my stance and alignment."
He remembers being taught to compete, winning his first tournament in the fourth grade—the Casis Elementary Invitation—by shooting 49-47; then getting his picture in the paper when he was only 11 after having shot a 74; and being sent to the back tees, the blue markers, when he was barely 13 and being told by his father to "stay there."
There are all sorts of stories about how terrifyingly good Crenshaw was in his early teens. By the time he was 14 he was going around Austin Country Club in the low 70s and occasionally the 60s—from the back.
"Every kid's ambition is to win the state junior in Texas," Crenshaw says. "It was mine, too. I was lucky enough to win it when I was 15, so I decided I'd better think up some more ambitions."
"If you were a young player in Texas and thought you were pretty good, all you had to do was watch Ben swing and see how much farther he hit it to wonder about your own ability," says Terry Jastrow, a producer for ABC-TV who played his share of Texas amateur golf as a boy.
"There was something else that convinced you," Jastrow remembers. "A bunch of us would be on the practice range beating balls. With everybody else Harvey Penick would spend an hour. But when he got around to Ben, he would look at him for a minute or two, smile and tell him to go play golf."
For all of this, Crenshaw insists he was never pushed into the sport by a father who decided to try to mold his very own Nicklaus.
"I got exposed to golf by riding around in a cart while my dad played," says Ben. "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."
It was evident early on that his father's lectures about playing by the rules had taken. There was the time when Ben was 17 that he needed only two putts from 20 feet on the final green in Houston to qualify for the USGA Junior Amateur Championship. He two-putted but called a penalty on himself, thereby failing to qualify. "The ball moved," he said.
Crowds love a wee, blond, long-hitting kid who is honest.
As the thousands in his galleries have come to realize, Crenshaw has spirit to go along with his warmth. This, too, is almost Palmeresque. His face can express exquisite agony, or radiate with a grin. And he can display anger without having it linger.
At Tucson recently he hit a shot from far down the fairway, out of a bunker. Seconds after he swung he turned away in fiery frustration and beat the club on the ground. Was the ball headed out of bounds? No. Here it came floating nicely down onto the green, the precise distance six feet from cup, pin high.
"What was that act all about?" he was asked. "What were you so mad about?"
"It didn't fade," he said.
Crenshaw has not had time to develop enemies on the tour, but it is hard to imagine that happening. He is already accustomed to being ribbed by the older players about his ability, his reputation, his "cuteness" and the fact that young ladies are drawn to him in large numbers.
"He's our leader," says Allen Miller, who, along with Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite, John Mahaffey and several others, was an amateur competitor of Crenshaw's. Now they are all on the tour.
"Ben beats you to death, but you can't resist liking him and respecting him," Miller says. "It's like he's representing us out here, our era. If he wins, it's like we win. The thing about him is, he almost roots for you to beat him—if you're good enough. Tell you what. I'll be very happy to finish second to him every week—and pick up his cast-off girls."
"Ben's Wrens" is the name that has been given to some of his more spectacular fans. He has taken up the habit of getting almost as many autographs as he gives, along with addresses and phone numbers.
"Wrens is funnier than Bunnies," says Ben.
It seems no one is safe from Crenshaw's charm. It keeps coming out in different ways.
Hearing they were going to be paired together in a tournament round, Tommy Shaw, now a tour veteran, said, "Hey, great. I've been waiting two years to get to play with him!"
Lee Trevino says, "He's got the best grip, the best setup and best swing I've ever seen. Besides that, he's nice."
After he beat Crenshaw to win his third tournament in a row, Johnny Miller said, "Wow, what a player he is. I didn't think I could hold him off. He has to be the best for his age there ever was. His personality is too good to be true. We may never know it, but down inside of him there might be the cockiest killer there ever was."
A lady official at the Tucson National Golf Club took it a step further.
"Ben hasn't been here for three years," she said. "That's when he won his first NCAA. But he remembered everybody's name. Do you know why everybody likes him? It's because the women want to mother him and the men want to father him." She did not mention the Wrens.
As Crenshaw walked off down the first fairway at Tucson with Bruce Crampton and Dave Hill early in the tournament, a bevy of girls set off in pursuit.
"Who're we following?" one of them asked.
"I don't know who the other two are," one Wren said. "But that's Ben Crenshaw!"
OFF THE TOUR, Crenshaw enjoys a quiet moment on his balcony with a hometown friend.