He is known around the world of golf as "Gentle Ben," a two-time Masters champion and now captain of the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup starting at The Country Club Friday. And yet, there also have been times when "Mental Ben" also might apply.
A few years ago, Crenshaw, one of the all-time greats on the green, three-putted the 16th hole at Colonial Country Club in Texas, his home state and one of his most revered venues. As he walked to the 17th tee, angry at himself for his atrocious work, he kicked a trash barrel with his right foot. As Crenshaw said later, "It didn't back down a bit." X-rays later showed a broken bone that some believe clearly has affected his play.
At the PGA Championship in Medinah, Ill., last month, Crenshaw became extremely emotional about comments by American players indicating they thought they should be paid for playing in the Ryder Cup, either directly or to their favorite charity. At a news conference, Crenshaw sharply criticized players who had brought up the topic at a meeting of the Cup team.
"I'm personally disappointed in a couple of people in that meeting," he said, with a trembling voice. "I mean that. They know who they are. Whether some players like it or not, there are a lot of people who came before them who mean a hell of a lot to this game. It burns the hell out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints."
Crenshaw later identified those players as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Mark O'Meara. None was pleased about the team captain's public criticism. Crenshaw apologized to each player on the telephone the next day and also went on national television to explain his comments.
"I'm from a different generation," he said. The Ryder Cup "means a lot to all of us who've been there. I got upset because I want people to be as excited as I am."
His players say they are, and that they understand both sides of Crenshaw. They certainly understand his captain's credentials are impeccable. He was a a three-time NCAA champion at Texas, won his first tournament as a professional in the 1973 Texas Open and has 22 victories worldwide. His last came in the emotional '95 Masters, the same week he served as a pallbearer at the funeral for Harvey Penick, his one and only golf teacher, his mentor and his dear friend.
"I think that 'Gentle Ben' is the correct term to use," said Hal Sutton, playing in his first Ryder Cup since 1987. "But he's emotional. He's passionate, and it's an honor to be playing for him. Yes, we have seen the other side of Ben. He's explained what he wants for us, and I think he's going to be a great leader for the week."
Crenshaw and his players now insist the pay-for-play controversy is behind them. There were some hard feelings at first, but they all say the only thing on their minds this week is wresting the precious Cup back from the European team. Europe won the Cup in '95 with an upset victory at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., then retained it two years ago at Valderrama in Spain.
Crenshaw, 47, played on that losing U.S. side in '95, and the Ryder Cup has been on his mind for most of the last two years since the PGA of America appointed him to captain the team. He and his wife, Julie, have spent most of their waking hours micro-managing all the details, from picking the proper outfits for players and wives to decorating the players' team room at their hotel to Crenshaw setting up the golf course the best way possible to take advantage of his team's extraordinary skills.
For Crenshaw, a traditionalist and historian of the game he learned under Penick back in Austin, this has been a full-time labor of love, "one of the greatest honors anyone could ever receive."
It can also be among the greatest burdens, as the last two losing captains--Lanny Wadkins in '95 and Tom Kite in '97--learned the hard way. Because the '99 team, like the previous two, is a heavy favorite, Crenshaw almost certainly will come under heavy criticism if Europe prevails, even if he won't be hitting a single shot over the three-day match play competition.
"If we don't win, we're going to get hammered," O'Meara has said.
Asked about O'Meara's comment, Crenshaw said, "I think Hal Sutton made a very interesting comment when we were here two and a half weeks ago," Crenshaw said. "He said, 'Hopefully, this time our side will think about doing something right instead of doing something wrong and being so careful.'
"There's one great thing about match play--it lends itself to more aggressive play. That's the way you win holes. Maybe that gets into what Mark was saying. You can't tiptoe through this thing. You've got to keep playing what you think is your best golf, and it's got to be aggressive. . . . Fear is always in a Ryder Cup participant, no matter what side you're on. This time, we've felt that sting twice. But that's good."
Crenshaw has spent the first two days of practice cementing his pairings for the first two days of competition. Like all Cup captains before him, he's keeping them to himself until the draw is announced Thursday, though he has been wide open to suggestions from his players. He said today a pairing of No. 1 Tiger Woods and No. 2 David Duval was "a possibility" at some point the first two days, but went no further.
"You put players together during practice rounds, talk to them all the time and see how they feel about playing with certain players," he said. "But it all comes down to your best guess. If the guys I put together win, I look like a genius. If they don't, I guess I look like a goat. But I've got an extraordinary group of players, and I fully expect them to win."
His players know how important this competition is to Crenshaw, how much time he has committed and how much he has sacrificed his own game to make things absolutely perfect for them in every way.
"It's like planning a huge wedding, trying to make everyone happy, which is not an easy thing to do," said Jeff Maggert, playing on his third Cup team.
"I think the work that goes into the captaincy and by his wife is really probably underappreciated by a lot of people, except the players," Justin Leonard said. "We see the little things he's done and time he's spent on it. He's spent two years to make sure it's a great week for us."
In most players' eyes, and certainly Crenshaw's, it will only be a great week if the Cup stays in America for the next two years.
"I don't think Ben will have a hard time firing anyone up," said Tom Lehman, one of Crenshaw's two captain's picks along with Steve Pate. "I personally am sick of losing. I know Ben will do everything possible to make the players comfortable and competitive. I have a lot of respect for him."
U.S. vs. Europe
TV: Friday -- USA, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday -- NBC, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday -- NBC, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; The Golf Channel, closing ceremonies, 5 p.m.
Format: Four alternate-shot matches and four best-ball matches on each of the first two days. Twelve 18-hole singles matches Sunday. One point is awarded for each victory, a half-point when the match is a draw. The United States needs 14 points to win the cup. Europe, as defending champion, would retain the cup if it ends in a tie.
Last match: Seve Ballesteros's European squad defeated the United States, 14-13, in Sotogrande, Spain.
U.S. team: David Duval, Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Jeff Maggert, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Steve Pate, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods. Captain: Ben Crenshaw.
European team: Darren Clarke, Andrew Coltart, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Paul Lawrie, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Jesper Parnevik, Jarmo Sandelin, Jean Van de Velde and Lee Westwood. Captain: Mark James.
Series: Began in 1927; the U.S. leads, 23-7-2.