Captain Crenshaw happy to be 'home'; But course adds heat to his Ryder Cup task


BROOKLINE, Mass. -- As a 16-year-old high school phenom from Texas, Ben Crenshaw came to The Country Club for the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur. He wound up losing in the semifinals, but his disappointment in the result was overshadowed by what happened to him at this historic setting that week.

He fell in love.

The roots of Crenshaw's well-documented passion for the game and its lore can be found here. It's a love affair that has lasted more than three decades and has played a significant part in a career that has been both fulfilling and frustrating.

From his years as an All-American at the University of Texas and steady rise on the PGA Tour to the malaise that fell between his two major championships, Crenshaw became as much a student of the game as one of its stars.

Now 47 and more than four years removed from his last victory -- the 1995 Masters -- Crenshaw will try to impart some of those emotions and experiences to a group of 12 American players beginning today in the 33rd Ryder Cup.

"To experience what I did when I was 16 was a really deep experience," he said earlier this week. "So I have very emotional ties here. I find it very ironic that the incubation process began here. To find that I'm captain here at such a meaningful proceeding, I'm highly honored."

He also finds himself under a microscope.

As the non-playing captain of a U.S. team looking to end its four-year drought in the biennial event, Crenshaw must put together a lineup that will take advantage of what is perceived as a sizable edge in talent and experience, then tinker with it through the three days of competition.

Asked to describe the difference in his preparation for this year's competition compared with the four times he appeared in it as a player, Crenshaw said: "It's certainly something I've never experienced before. It's impossible not to make mistakes in some form or fashion. You hope the golf works itself out."

Crenshaw knows all about being in the role of heavy favorite. As a Ryder Cup rookie in 1981, he was a member of what many have called the greatest U.S. team ever assembled. Featuring Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, it crushed the European team, 18 1/2-9 1/2, at Walton Heath in Surrey, England.

But Crenshaw also knows about being on the losing end and feeling partially responsible. In 1987, a 15-13 European victory, Crenshaw lost two close matches at Muirfield Village, first with Payne Stewart to Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in the second-day foursomes and then to Eamonn Darcy on the 18th hole in singles.

After the matches, team captain Nicklaus criticized his players, saying they knew how to win money but not matches. "I remember it painfully well," Crenshaw said Wednesday. "A lot of us fell down on the 18th hole. I'll always remember that. I don't foresee it being a problem this time."

Crenshaw's tenure as captain hasn't been without its bumps. There was the controversy surrounding the pay-for-play issue that blew up during last month's PGA Championship, an issue Crenshaw enflamed by blasting a few high-profile Ryder Cup members for not displaying a similar sense of reverence about the event.

Crenshaw publicly apologized for his outburst and has since smoothed things over with players such as Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson.

Though Woods at the time downplayed the role Crenshaw would have here -- "It's not like he's a coach," Woods said -- others have not.

"I think a captain has to be strong enough to sit down a player -- no matter who he is -- if he's not playing well," said Mickelson, an obvious reference to Kite's decision to keep playing Woods and Davis Love at Valderrama in 1997.

How much influence a captain has on the Ryder Cup's outcome is a question for debate. Kite was ripped for being too accommodating to his players. Ballesteros, hailed for his micromanaging, drove his players crazy.

"I don't think you can win because of a captain or lose because of a captain," said Jesper Parnevik of Sweden, who'll be making his second straight appearance for Europe.

Though Crenshaw could be considered merely a caretaker, he also could be blamed for a third straight U.S. loss.

"There's an impossibility to try to look at four names and say, 'Well, who am I going to leave out?' " Crenshaw said after announcing the pairings yesterday. "I've driven myself nuts."

Who said love, even if it's the love of the Ryder Cup, would ever be easy?

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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