In Masters history, Ben Crenshaw’s name is written big.
He was the small amateur, that is to say the amateur who played the best that week, in consecutive years, 1972 and 1973. In 1984, he won the tournament, beating Tom Watson by two strokes. But it was his 1995 victory at age 43 that is one for the history books.
Just days after the death of his trainer and mentor Harvey Penick, he once again teamed up with Carl Jackson, the caddy of Augusta National Golf Club, wins with a stroke. When the final putt dropped, Crenshaw wrapped around Jackson in an emotional embrace on the 18th green.
Crenshaw, 70, hasn’t played in the tournament since 2015 but has become a guide at the annual Champions Dinner. He is also one of the best golf course architects. He and his business partner, Bill Coore, have designed or renovated half a dozen top 100 courses in the world.
Ahead of his 50th Masters, Crenshaw spoke about the course, players and history. The following has been edited and condensed.
How has the tournament experience changed over the years?
With modern golf, I’m amazed at how Augusta National has tried to keep up. They stretched the length of the holes almost as much as they could in many cases. But the actual intention of playing golf is pretty much the same. You always want to drive the ball into position so you get the best angle on those greens. Nowadays there was no second cut [of the higher grass just off the fairway that was instituted in 1998] – it was grass clippings everywhere you looked. The ball would continue to run. It was very strategic in that regard. There were many instances where an errant tee ball could run into trouble.
Augusta National will throw for 7,510 yards this year, 300 yards more than the average PGA Tour course. Yet it is the greens, not the length, that challenge the best players. What do they like?
The greens are remarkable in the way they are played. It’s the contours of those greens and what can happen to the ball. From a player’s perspective, Augusta National is very focused on the approach to the green. But you learn the course over time. You don’t go straight to the flag. You play there to get where you are going. When a player is trying to practice and learn the golf course, you will see the newcomers going to many places around the greens and hitting those chips and short shots. You can’t practice them enough. I was hitting them from various places; I had hit him somewhere I hadn’t been.
So distance matters less?
Let’s face it, a lot of the focus is on how far people can hit the ball and how much advantage they have. It’s true. But if you look at the list of champions, there are so many people with varying distances from the tee. He will always reward the long hitter for hitting him where he should be.
You were the little amateur in the 70s and a winner in the 80s and 90s. What has challenged you over the decades?
The course pushes you to take risks. You know, if you miss that shot, you still suffer the consequences of missing by a very small margin. If you miss a spot on the green, the ball can go 60, 70 feet from where you want it to go. No one can play it safe and win in Augusta. You have to take risks to score. Nothing gives you more confidence than when you hit a good shot. It puts excitement into the game. There was nothing quite like being in contention at Augusta and hearing the crowd.
What does the conversation look like at the dinner of champions?
When we’re at dinner, we all look around the table and see different eras of golf. The conversation between champions is always about how they played, who you were chasing, who were your pursuers, what chances did you take. There is a thread woven through all of us that we are very lucky to be in this room. You always want to ask Jack Nicklaus or Gary Player or Vijay Singh, “You faced that shot and you knew you had to take a chance. Did it go as you planned? We faced the same challenges and we overcame them.