Ben Crenshaw, America's pro, is in trouble. Barely a year after Gentle Ben had grown men crying in the television booth over his Masters victory, the guarantee on his putter has expired. He's losing weight and can't figure out why. Everyone is giving him advice and sending him good-luck charms. Crenshaw was never known for an accurate long game, but now his vaunted putting stroke has disappeared, too. Folks have taken to calling him "Mental Ben."
Last week at the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Ohio, a disconsolate Crenshaw missed the 36-hole cut by a stroke with rounds of 73 and 78. It was the eighth time this season that Crenshaw, who is 10th on the alltime PGA money list at just under $2 million, had bombed, failing to make it into the final 36 holes. In the locker room, Crenshaw sat with his arms folded across his chest, his hands massaging his shoulders as he rocked back and forth and tried to explain a season in which he has earned $13,540 in 14 tournaments, placing him a distant 133rd on the money list.
The collapse of his short game is a mystery. PGA Tour statistics listed Crenshaw an unbelievable 144th in putting, which in turn helps explain why his best finish this year is 18th in the Hawaiian Open. He is so frustrated that in the first round of the Memorial he kicked "Little Ben," the 18-year-old flange putter that for so many years has been his magic wand and faithful servant. On Friday, after three-putting the 9th hole for an eight, he threw "Little Ben" to the ground. Mediocre putting is the reason his scoring average coming into the Memorial was 74.03, 160th on the tour and almost four strokes higher than his average for the first 13 tournaments last year, when he won $224,864.
"It seemed to all start right here last year," said Crenshaw. Following his Masters victory, his first major title, Crenshaw finished 14th in the Tournament of Champions, then tied for sixth in the Byron Nelson and fourth in the Colonial. After two rounds of the '84 Memorial, he held a one-stroke lead over Jack Nicklaus, the eventual winner. But in the third round he made an eight on the 10th hole, finished with a pair of 79s and, except for a ninth-place tie at the Western Open a month and a half later, has hardly been near a leader board since.
"I've gotten stale," Crenshaw said. "When you play well, it's a fun game. But the way I'm playing has taken the luster off. You have to prove yourself in tough situations. That's the answer. I need one good week. Maybe two."
Crenshaw has lost about 12 pounds, and on his slight 5'9" frame, it shows. "No matter how much I eat, I keep losing weight," he says, shaking his head. "Those 74s wear you down to a nub."
So does indecision, which seems to be Crenshaw's companion on the golf course now. On almost every hole, he stands in the fairway, first pulling an iron from his bag, then exchanging it for another. Even when he does make a putt, he walks off the green shaking his head, wondering how it happened.
And that's not a unique feeling in golf. "This game can just beat you down," Bill Rogers was saying at the Memorial. Rogers was PGA Player of the Year in 1981, a season in which he won the British Open plus three other tournaments and $315,411 in all. After that he went into a steep decline. Last year he ended up 134th on the money list with $34,746, and this season he came to Muir-field Village in 112th place. "Golf can kill you," Rogers observed. "There aren't many ways Ben can be lower than I am now, so I know how he feels. I'm just ready to pack 'em up and leave. I bet he's feeling the same way. When it's going bad, like it has been for Ben, believe me, they have not made anything tougher." Or more puzzling: In the Memorial, a suddenly resurgent Rogers finished an encouraging seventh.
Crenshaw isn't the only headliner struggling this season. Jerry Pate, who won the 1976 U.S. Open as a rookie, is one of only three players in the last 25 years to win a tournament in each of his first three seasons. Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino are the others. Last week Pate withdrew from the Memorial with shoulder pain, the problem that has bothered him since mid-1982. That year he won the Tournament Players Championship, then suffered a torn shoulder muscle. In '83 he was 136th on the money list with $28,890; last year he was 118th with $41,746. In 14 tournaments this season, he has won $6,137 and is 150th in earnings.
Even Tom Watson, last year's Player of the Year, is dissatisfied with his game, although his problem may seem less serious in comparison. Watson won three tournaments in 1984, but he hasn't been a serious challenger since the British Open at St. Andrews, when he finished second to Seve Ballesteros. This year he has not won, and his touch on the greens seems to have deserted him. He says that he can't read putts anymore and, noting he is nearsighted, wonders if perhaps he needs eyeglasses. Of course, bad for Watson would be just fine, thank you, for anyone else. He was ninth on the money list last week with $179,783. "But you can't go by money," he admitted. "You have to go by how many times you win when you're in contention, and I just haven't done it." At the Memorial, Watson shot 75-72-76-71-294, finishing 13 strokes behind winner Hale Irwin, and earned $3,320, which should cover the eye exam.
If only Ben Crenshaw's answer could come so easily. Last week, Hubert Green—remember him?—was empathizing with Crenshaw. In 1976 Green won three straight tournaments and the next year also won the U.S. Open. But later, Green dropped into oblivion, finishing 135th on the money list in '83 before winning again at the Southern Open last October. "I know the frustration Ben's going through," Green said. "The mental agony. It's a taste you can't get off your tongue."
Crenshaw is struggling everywhere, in bunkers, amid trees where stray shots land and on the greens with his once-magical putter.
What might be joyful for another golfer is woeful for Watson.