Golf: Gentle Ben to bridge generation gap

America's Ryder Cup captain is a philosopher but can he also be king against the Europeans?
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HE IS known as Gentle Ben. The perfect gentleman. He cries at supermarket openings. He won two US Masters, helped by one of the silkiest putting strokes ever, using his celebrated putter, Little Ben. The second win at Augusta came about with almost divine intervention as Crenshaw grieved for his late mentor, Harvey Penick.

Ben Crenshaw, at 47, leads the American team in the 33rd Ryder Cup at the Country Club at Brookline starting on Friday. In his Texan drawl, he speaks passionately, lovingly, the ideal diplomat. "When I was picked to be captain two years ago, I felt an elation that is something that you dream of," he said.

"And as you know, my viewpoints and philosophies are directly tied into this site at the Country Club. I know it's burdensome to hear but, really, in my incubation as a golfer, when I came to Boston and played here for the first time when I was 16 years old, it opened my eyes on the world of golf.

"It was the first time I had enjoyed national competition" - reaching the quarter-finals of the US Junior - "and a fabulous historic golf course in the east. It's an important club in the nurturing of the game in this country. It's ironic that I would have such an honour at a place I dearly love. You can understand that honour and pulling this team together is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life."

But can Crenshaw do it? Can he pull together a group of millionaires from a younger generation who do not share his romantic appreciation for the history of the game? There are doubters and their anxieties only increased when Crenshaw announced Bruce Lietzke, a semi-retired tour player, and Bill Rogers, the 1981 Open champion, as his assistants.

Johnny Miller, the former US player, explained: "If history has told us anything, it's that the best Ryder Cup teams are led by tough, businesslike, hands-on captains who have a way of bringing out the best in their players. Seve Ballesteros, Tony Jacklin, Tom Watson and Dave Stockton were all that way. Ben, on the other hand, is one of the warmest, most trusting people I've ever known. I hope he doesn't adopt a hands-off, go-play policy. If he does, the Americans could suffer their third straight loss."

Others know better. "Crenshaw is a killer who happened to have a father who taught him to be polite," stated Golf Digest magazine. Charlie Crenshaw, who died earlier this year, gave his son Little Ben for his 15th birthday. The first of many replacement shafts was fitted a little over a year later. He once snapped it during his 1987 Ryder Cup singles and had to use a one-iron or sand wedge for the rest of the round. The match went to the 18th where Eamonn Darcy sealed a famous European win.

"That was one of the low points of my career," Crenshaw said. "There's a lot of fire in me. My hero was Bobby Jones. He had a violent temper, absolutely violent. It took super-human effort by him to control it. I can get upset at myself with the best of them.

"Am I tough enough?" he pondered. "That's a fair question. Given my reputation, it's understandable. Hopefully, it won't have to be a question of my being too hard or too soft. I'd like to be the kind of captain the guys want to play for. Play well for. You know, the kind of guy they say in baseball is a players' manager."

Crenshaw made that difficult for himself by his stinging attack on those players who provoked the pay-for-play row at the USPGA last month. Suddenly, in an otherwise routine press conference, Crenshaw's anger boiled over. Typically, he later apologised and set about rebuilding team spirit. He took a controversial decision to leave out Fred Couples and go with players he thought would help in that endeavour, Tom Lehman and Steve Pate.

"My only job as captain is to bring these guys together in an effort to bring the Cup back," he said. "That's all I'm concerned with. My immediate predecessors, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins, are fine competitors but we haven't done it. There is a sense of urgency for the Americans. I need to get the best out of my players but there is no question: it has to be a team effort.

"You have to have sustained play from your line-up to make it happen. The Europeans have done a marvellous job of putting things together and doing whatever is necessary. It's inspiration. It's talent. It's hard work and determination and preparation. They've done a beautiful job at that and it's what we must do.

"They will be united. More than us? I can't say that. I hope not. But I know in the past, you could almost feel that it meant more to them. They want it terribly.

"That's why I told David Duval to think twice about calling it an exhibition. He hasn't even played in one yet. I told him this will be like nothing you've ever seen or heard in golf. My first Ryder Cup in '81, it wasn't nearly as big then as it is now.

"But it was over there, and our captain, Dave Marr, did a great job of preparing us for what was going to happen. Our misses would be cheered. That's something completely contrary to the nature of golf. One reason it has become so huge is patriotism. Another reason is that golf itself has become so big, so global.

"And, let's face it, interest in the Ryder Cup grew when we started losing it. Like the America's Cup in yachting. Roll all that together, plus the fact that a close competition is almost guaranteed, and you have what we have now - an unbelievably special occasion."

True to his nature, however, Crenshaw is concerned about the rise in incidents of player abuse by golfing galleries. After the unpleasant atmosphere of the Kiawah Island match in 1991, four years ago at Oak Hill it was terrific but even Tiger Woods was heckled in winning the USPGA in Chicago last month.

"People's behaviour in golf, players and spectators alike is a part of what makes his game special," he said. "But we are seeing more and more of things these days which are tremendously unfair when players are under intense concentration and focus. It's out there every week and you can only hope it does not become part of this game."

European 2000 Tour schedule, Digest, page 27