Friday 23 June 2017

Irish links will never fade for Masters legend Gentle Ben

Forty years after his Irish Open victory, Crenshaw relives his Portmarnock memories with Liam Kelly

Jordan Spieth and Ben Crenshaw tip their hats to the Augusta crowds last year. Photo: Getty
Jordan Spieth and Ben Crenshaw tip their hats to the Augusta crowds last year. Photo: Getty
Crenshaw with his green jacket. Photo: Getty
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The memories of Portmarnock 1976 will never fade for Ben Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, host of the traditional Champions Dinner every year since 2006, played the last of his 44 Masters in 2015, and has been in demand for his inside knowledge of Augusta National by media and players alike.

But he also took time out on Saturday to recall the first of his two appearances in the then Carrolls-sponsored Irish Open played at Portmarnock in August '76.

His inclusion was a coup for the tournament director at the time, Pat Heneghan.

Crenshaw, then aged 24, had finished runner-up to Ray Floyd in the Masters the previous April. He had won twice on the PGA Tour earlier that year and was to win again a few weeks after his visit to Ireland.

When prompted about the memories of that week four decades ago, Crenshaw's face lit up.

"Portmarnock was a magnificent links. I'd read about it before I went over. Everybody said 'wait till you get on that golf course'. And you know what, I really remember it.

"I had such a nice time with Harry Bradshaw. What a wonderful man. I really enjoyed my time there and somehow I won," he said.

Crenshaw's inclusion added lustre to an already impressive list of starters in the Irish Open. Carrolls had revived the tournament in 1975 at Woodbrook and Christy O'Connor Junior proved a very popular winner.

The following year, the event took on a new momentum. Portmarnock, the spiritual home of Irish golf, hosted the stars of the European Tour and the visiting Americans.

The players and the event caught the imagination of the golfing public and a new era begun.

Gary Player and the young swashbuckling Spaniard Seve Ballesteros were in the field, as were the O'Connors, Christy Senior and Junior, and a host of quality European Tour professionals.

Experience

Crenshaw won a closely-contested tournament from compatriot, Billy Casper, the 1970 Masters champion, who finished joint second with Tommy Horton. Ironically, the champion had relatively little experience of links golf at that time.

"It really wasn't much. My first Open championship was 1974 at Lytham. I did not play at Carnoustie or Birkdale the following two years.

"How I came to be there was because of Billy Casper.

"He had played, I think, a couple of times before and he suggested to the tournament officials, 'I think you want to get this young kid, Crenshaw over.' I stayed in a house locally. I'm trying to remember the couple that I stayed with. Their name escapes me, but they were so nice.

"Billy stayed in another house close by. This was unbelievable. We went over to Joe Carr's house and I had just met Roddy (Joe's son), so to listen to Joe tell stories, it was absolutely remarkable. What a fabulous man.

"The galleries were tremendous. They were very nice to me. I enjoyed it, especially the chance to play links golf. I loved the golf course, especially the 15th hole," said Crenshaw.

The Carr link remains, as John Carr, one of Joe's sons, is a member of Augusta National GC, and through the week he was the moderator of Rory McIlroy's media conferences.

Crenshaw returned in 1977 only to be pipped for first place by fellow American Hubert Green who had won the US Open the previous June.

"I went back the following year. Hubert beat me by a shot. I think I remember he hit two woods to 17 to eight feet and he birdied it," said Crenshaw.

In those days, Christy O'Connor Senior could still contend and his nephew, Christy Junior, was on the rise as a Tour player.

Crenshaw was saddened to hear of Junior's recent passing. "He was just the nicest guy," said Crenshaw.

The other Irishman forever to be linked with Ben Crenshaw is Eamonn Darcy, who clinched the winning point for Europe in the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village by defeating the American.

This was the day when Crenshaw famously broke his putter during the match and subsequently putted with a sand wedge and then a 3-iron.

"Eamonn and I just laugh about that. He said ' I didn't know what you were doing.'

"I said 'Eamonn, I broke my putter.' He said 'I thought you were just using something to slow the ball down because the greens were so fast.'

Broke

"I said 'no, I broke my putter.'

"It was not a great fit of anger. I three-putted the sixth green that day against Eamonn and I went off to the edge of the green, and I had the putter head in my hand.

"And in Columbus, Ohio, they had these buckeye nuts that had fallen off the trees, and I tapped it (the putter shaft) on one, and it just snapped right in half. I thought 'Oh my God, what a time for this to happen."

The putter, a Wilson 8802, was repaired and did duty on some famous occasions, notably Crenshaw's Masters victories in 1984 and 1995.

All through Masters week, Jack Nicklaus was been inundated with requests to talk about 1986 when, at 46, he became the oldest player to win the title at Augusta.

Not so many appreciate that the second oldest Masters winner is Crenshaw, who was 43 years, two months and 29 days old when he earned his second Green Jacket in 1995.

The day before the Masters began that April, Crenshaw was a pallbearer for his long-time coach Harvey Penick, to whom he dedicated that Masters victory.

"He was such a wonderful man, like Harry Bradshaw and people who love and nurture the game, and get people into the game, and keep them there.

"They know how great the game is, but he (Penick) lived his whole life to help people. He was something else."

Also in the "something else" category is Jordan Spieth. Last year, prior to his Augusta victory, Spieth had a practice round with Crenshaw and Tiger Woods. A picture of the two Texans tipping their hats in acknowledgement of the patrons applause, holds a special place in Crenshaw's heart.

"It's one of my favourite pictures. We're thanking them for applauding, but I'm also tipping my hat to Jordan. This is the future and I'm very happy to have played a part in it," said Crenshaw.

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