In the history of the Masters, Ben Crenshaw’s name is writ large.
He was the low amateur, meaning the amateur who plays the best that week, in back-to-back years, 1972 and 1973. In 1984, he won the tournament, besting Tom Watson by two strokes. But it’s his 1995 victory at age 43 that’s one for the history books.
Just days after his coach and mentor Harvey Penick died, he paired again withCarl Jackson, the Augusta National Golf Club caddie, to win by one shot. When the final putt dropped, Crenshaw draped himself around Jackson in an emotional embrace on the 18th green.
Crenshaw, 70, hasn’t played in the tournament since 2015, but he has become a guiding presence at the annual Champions Dinner. He is also among the top golf course architects. He and his business partner, Bill Coore, have designed or renovated a half dozen courses rated in the top 100 in the world.
Ahead of his 50th Masters, Crenshaw spoke about the course, the players and the history. The following has been edited and condensed.
How has the experience of the tournament changed over the years?
With modern golf, I’m amazed how Augusta National has striven to keep up with the times. They have stretched the length of the holesalmost as much as they possibly could in a lot of instances. But the actual intent of playing the golf course is very much the same. You still want to drive the ball into a position so you have the best angle into those greens. In our day there was no second cut [of the higher grass just off the fairway that was instituted in 1998] — it was cut grass everywhere you looked. The ball would keep running. It was very strategic in that regard. There were a lot of instances where an errant tee ball could run into trouble.
Augusta National will play 7,510 yards this year, 300 yards longer than the average PGA Tour course. Still, it’s the greens, not the length, that challenge the best players. What are they like?
The greens are remarkable in the way they play. It’s the contours of those greens and what can happen to the ball. From a player’s standpoint, Augusta National is very much about the approach shot to the green. But you learn the course over time. You don’t go directly to the flagstick. You play over there to get where you’re going. When a player is trying to practice and learn the golf course, you’ll see the newcomers go to many spots around the greens and hit these chips and little short shots. You can’t practice them enough. I’d hit them from various spots; I’d hit it somewhere I hadn’t been.
So distance matters less?
Let’s face it, much of the emphasis is on how far people can hit the ball and what advantage they have. That’s true. But if you look over the champions list there are so many people with varying distances off the tee. It will always reward the long hitter who hits it where it should be.
You were the low amateur in the ’70s, and a winner in the ’80s and ’90s. What challenged you over the decades?
The course goads you into taking chances. You know if you don’t bring that shot off, you always suffer the consequences of missing by a very small margin. If you miss a spot on the green, the ball might go 60, 70 feet away from where you want it to go. No one can play safe and win at Augusta. You’ve got to take chances to score. Nothing gives you more confidence than when you hit a good shot. It puts the excitement in the game. There was nothing like being in contention at Augusta and hearing the crowd.
What’s the conversation like at the Champions Dinner?
When we’re at the dinner we all look around the table and we’re seeing different eras of golf. The conversation among the champions is always how they played, who you were chasing, who were your pursuers, what chances did you take. There’s a thread woven through all of us that we’re very fortunate to be in that room. You always want to ask Jack Nicklaus or Gary Player or Vijay Singh: “You faced this shot, and you knew you had to take a chance there. Did it come off as you planned?” We faced the same challenges, and we got through it.