Young Ben Crenshaw is taking a Cook’s tour of South Carolina’s lush Harbour Town Golf Links, thrashing, hooking, muffing his way through what his best friend, pro golfer Eddie Pearce, calls “Crenshaw’s usual: absolutely the worst practice round on the PGA tour.” No matter. Ben is a winner. At 24, he can whack the ball as far as anyone, his putting stroke is said to be the smoothest on the professional tour, and he is clean, reverent and obedient. Sportswriters call him “Gentle Ben,” and so far this year he has won two major tournaments and more than $100,000. This week he is at the famed Masters tournament in Augusta, Ga.
“If I had a good week I could take the Masters,” he says without boastfulness. “The course is suited to my game—it’s wide open. Other courses require such accuracy that if you don’t hit the ball straight you’ve had it. But I like a course where I can hit the ball as hard as I want.”
When Crenshaw joined the pro tour after dropping out of the University of Texas in 1973, big things were expected of him. He had won three consecutive NCAA championships, surpassing the record of two, held by Arnold Palmer and others. Officially joining the pro tour in October, Crenshaw won the next tournament he entered and a remarkable $76,749 before the year ended. But he faded almost as quickly. Over the next two seasons he didn’t win a tournament.
Friends claimed he was distracted by the hordes of giggling girls who lined the fairways to watch him play. And Ben admits that his marriage to Polly Speno last June helped settle him down. “She’s a deterrent in that respect,” he observes in his Texas drawl. “And she keeps me from worrying about golf when I come home. Before, I just didn’t have any sense of direction.”
Ben and Polly, now 18, met two years ago at a tournament in Harrison, N.Y. He and Pearce were playing a practice round when Pearce spotted a striking blonde with her eye on his friend. “Look at that,” Pearce said. Ben did, and ambled over to where Polly was standing with her father, Robert R. Speno, an insurance salesman. The conversation, Ben remembers, went something like this:
Speno: “You’re not hitting too good with your irons.”
Crenshaw: “Yeah. That your daughter?”
By then Polly, still a high school student, was blushing furiously. Ben dated her that week, and afterward whenever he could. They were married the following spring.
His domestic situation resolved, Ben next sought professional advice from golf instructor Bob Toski. “He made some minor changes in my swing, but mainly he worked on my mental attitude,” Ben says. “I was about five inches from becoming an outstanding golfer—that’s the distance between my left ear and my right one.” Crenshaw, the son of an Austin, Tex. attorney, also asked Golden Bear Inc., Jack Nicklaus’ firm, to handle some of his business commitments. “Let’s just say,” says Jack, “I helped keep him pointed in the right direction.”
At the first tournament of the 1976 season, the Tucson Open, Crenshaw finished 13 strokes behind. He was seven strokes back at the Phoenix Open the following week. Then at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am he finally struck gold, taking the $37,000 first prize. A week later he proved it was no fluke, winning the Hawaiian Open and $46,000 more.
Crenshaw’s next goal is to win one of the handful of tournaments each year that his fellow professionals regard as the true tests of champions. “That,” he observes, “is where the great golfers are made.” A logical place to start is the Masters.