Crenshaw, 54, in contention for old time's sake

April 08, 2006

AUGUSTA, GA. — Augusta, Ga.-- After Ben Crenshaw broke par at the Masters for the first time in 11 years in Thursday's first round, he was asked if he stood any chance of winning the tournament.

Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner, turned away the question with a smile and the gentlest of rebukes.

"I've had my time here," he said in his Texas drawl.

But after he followed that round with a steady, even-par 72 in yesterday's second round, leaving him five strokes off the lead and very much in contention after 36 holes, he was asked again about daring to dream the impossible.

Can a 54-year-old who stopped playing well a decade ago come out of nowhere and win the Masters?

"I don't know. The chances are very remote," Crenshaw said with the same, wise smile. "I don't know where this is going to lead, but I'm having so much fun. I'm just going to see where it takes me."

A geriatric sub-theme has emerged after 36 holes at Augusta National -- the three-way tie for second behind leader Chad Campbell features Vijay Singh and Rocco Mediate, both 43, and Fred Couples, 46. Were Couples to win, he would become the oldest winner in Masters history, surpassing Jack Nicklaus in 1986 by about four months.

But unlike those others, Crenshaw is the real deal as an oldie sliding down the humbling back slope of his late career. Singh, Mediate and Couples are still factors on the PGA Tour (Couples ranked 38th on the earnings list last year and finished fourth at the Nissan Open this year), but Crenshaw has barely caused a ripple on the Champions Tour for golfers 50 and older.

Since joining the older tour in 2002, he has recorded no victories and just four top-10 finishes in 78 events, becoming all but invisible as he evolved into a genial elder statesman focused more on ceremonial tasks such as captaining the U.S. Ryder Cup team and hosting the annual champions dinner at the Masters.

Given all that and the recent changes to Augusta National that have made it one of the longest courses ever to host a major championship, Crenshaw, by no means a long hitter, seemed as outmatched as any of the 90 golfers in this year's Masters. He mused before the tournament that the course was so long and hard now -- "about a par 75 for me," he said -- that he might not even play here much longer.

But his Masters history is steeped in the magical and inexplicable. Eleven years ago, he teed off just days after burying his beloved mentor, Harvey Penick, hoping "just to put one foot in front of the other," he recalled. Instead, he won the tournament with a trance-like focus and then broke down and wept on the 72nd green.

His emotional victory was among the most memorable in golf history, still etched in the minds of millions. Clay Ogden, a 21-year-old amateur champion who played with Crenshaw yesterday and Thursday, vividly recalled watching it as a boy.

"The way he's playing now, he's looking like he did then," said Ogden, who finished 16 shots behind Crenshaw and missed the cut. "It was great getting to play with him. The guy can just roll the rock, period."

Translation: He can still putt, not that anyone who watched these two rounds will have doubts. Crenshaw, possibly the game's best putter in his heyday, rolled in enough long-distance par-savers for a dozen rounds.

On the par-4 17th yesterday, he drove into a tree, topped his second shot and dropped his 9-iron approach 20 feet from the hole, leaving him in danger of losing a stroke to par. But he sank the putt for what he called "one of the best pars of my life," eliciting a roar that could be heard across the grounds of the course.

"I had a lot of little miracles like that, especially in the first round," Crenshaw said yesterday. "Today I was pretty darn solid all the way around."

Where did this come from? Crenshaw shrugged. He had missed the cut in each of the past eight Masters, never shooting better than 74. And coming into this week, his 2006 had consisted of just four Champions Tour events in which he didn't factor.

"But I had been hitting the ball a little more solidly than before," he said. "I just wasn't making putts at the right time. Now, I am. I don't know. It's fun. I can't tell you how elated I am just to make the cut and have a chance to play this weekend. I guess it shows I have some game left. But I can't go much farther than that with it. I'm on the back side of my career. I'm just going to go out and play and see what happens."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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