May 23, 2015

At a Municipal Golf Course, Watching a Masters Career Come to a Close

Ben Crenshaw at the 2008 Senior Players Championship on Oct. 8 2008.

Ben Crenshaw at the 2008 Senior Players Championship on Oct. 8 2008. Photo courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr

By Jett Beachum

For Reporting Texas

On the eve of the 2015 Masters, golfers lugged bags of clubs to the tan brick clubhouse at Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin. Teenagers practiced on the putting greens outside while a voice over the loudspeaker boomed the names of the next group set to play. A couple of women practiced their driving, sending balls in the air that got lost in the overcast sky. The television in the clubhouse concession stand showed a familiar face as the Par 3 Contest began at Augusta National Golf Club, where the tournament would begin in a few days.

There was Ben Crenshaw, an Austin native and Lions veteran. Now 63, Crenshaw was preparing to play in his 44th and final Masters, a tournament he won in 1984 and 1995. His emotional win in ’95 was inspired by the death of his longtime coach and mentor Harvey Penick a week before the tournament began. Crenshaw’s connection to Lions began when he was learning the game.

David Shofner, a childhood friend of Crenshaw, recalled watching the final putt that sealed Crenshaw’s Masters win 20 years ago.

“I sat at the Bennigan’s on Riverside and had a drink while watching. It was very touching,” Shofner, a golf professional for the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said at Lions the week before the 2015 Masters. “I think the hand of Providence had something to do with that, and it was meant to be.”

Crenshaw was 43 years old that spring. He hadn’t won in over a year. He had been a pallbearer at Penick’s funeral the Wednesday before the Masters. The next morning, he bogeyed his first hole. But Crenshaw remembered the way Penick taught him to play. He shot rounds of 70-67-69 to earn a spot in the final pairing on Sunday.

Crenshaw shot a 68 to clinch a one-shot victory over Davis Love III.

He never won a tournament again. But that doesn’t matter to his friends at Lions. He visits the course occasionally to play, participate in clinics and give putting exhibitions on the practice green near the statue of the lion. He’s part of a group trying to save the course from potential development. It’s at Lake Austin and Exposition boulevards, in the tony Tarrytown neighborhood where Crenshaw grew up and still lives.

“He’s always hanging around with various people, helping them with their swings and their putting,” said Lorenzo De Paolis, who works part-time at Lions.

“Really, how much the course means to him should be the story,” said Rick Rhoten, who keeps track of the carts.

As a boy in West Austin, Crenshaw played many sports, including baseball, before his father, Charlie, introduced him to golf.

“He started taking up golf and it was just natural to him,” Shofner said.

Crenshaw won three straight men’s city championships from 1967-69, all while he attended Austin High School. He later won three individual NCAA titles at the University of Texas.

“He was a legend as a kid. I lived in Corpus [Christi] and everybody in Corpus heard about him,” Rhoten said.

De Paolis said: “It’s mostly anecdotal — stories about shots he would do that very few other people would do. He’d just fly it straight over the trees and straight to the green. And he was able to do that, and hardly anybody else has even attempted to do that.”

The players at Lions watched Crenshaw when he turned professional in 1973 and won his first start, the Texas Open. Crenshaw won nine tournaments in his first 10 years on the PGA Tour. They watched when he won his first Masters in 1984 and his second in ‘95. And they were back at Lions, on the eve of his final tournament on April 8.

As a group of golfers came into the clubhouse for beers after their rounds, they spotted Crenshaw on television. They sat down, leaned back and watched as Crenshaw played alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the Par 3 Contest.

Three days later, Crenshaw would miss the 36-hole cut.

There was another crowd at Lions that Friday afternoon. They watched the thousands of spectators around the 18th green at Augusta National rise to applaud as Crenshaw holed his last putt at Augusta National. They would never see him again at the Masters. But the golfers at Lions knew Crenshaw would be back soon enough.