Crenshaw stirs the spirit of old

Veteran a light in the gathering gloom as weather threatens to torment the world's finest
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The rains arrived as inevitably as Tiger Woods on the leaderboard here yesterday and as Darren Clarke and David Howell tried to chase down the Masters leader, Chad Campbell, the realisation that Augusta was altering before their very eyes added extra excitement to an event already packed with it.

From fast and fearsome it was changing to soft and agreeable and, out there with the early starters of the 47 left standing, Luke Donald was doing his utmost to scamper into the picture. Three pars kept the young Englishman at two over, but what he was really after were the birdies on the second and third of his Ryder Cup team-mate, Miguel Angel Jimenez. That took the Spaniard to level par and within six of lead; still adrift, but with 33 holes to go still with plenty of open water.

Yes, even the prospect of a fifth batch of weather delays in as many years was not dampening the anticipation, not with Vijay Singh up there, together with Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and, naturally, Woods. Ignore the threat of a runaway Campbell and this was a leaderboard that tournament organisers would give corporate limbs for. The Green Jackets, of course, simply shrugged their shoulders. This is the Masters, after all, it is supposed to be like this and do not even mention the course changes that the downpours were just about to expose to their severest test. "It was ever thus," as their chairman, Hootie Johnson, likes to say.

Except for Clarke and Howell it has not been. The latter's upward curve continues to amaze all - but mostly his unassumed Swindon self - while the former's family problems have been well charted, with Heather continuing her fight with cancer, and with her husband arriving here declaring that the new sense of perspective has changed him.

Clarke's outrageous talent is still there, but the destructive temper is no longer, and in a very strange sense the Ulsterman had never looked such a contender. By rights, everyone should have been rooting for him, but America could not resist pulling for one of their own. Especially when it was a 54-year-old returning from their memory. After two round, Ben Crenshaw was in the top 10 and nobody could quite believe it. Not where he has come back from.

The Ryder Cup in 1999 supposedly drained the game of some its respect, as the American team's celebrations spilt over into something quite ugly, but it also drained the victorious captain. Crenshaw disappeared into a wilderness before emerging so emotionally in the first two days of this 70th staging of a tournament he has won twice. "Augusta can do those sort of things to you," he said. "It's magical." And no one flicks the wand with more panache than Crenshaw.

Sentiment seems to kick the Texan on the backside when he most needs. It feels slightly insensitive to suggest, but Crenshaw never appears to stride more easily, or with such purpose, than when he is knee-deep in the syrup. Who can forget Crenshaw's teary triumph here in 1995 when he kept pointing to the sky and dedicating every cup-finding unlikelihood to his mentor, Harvey Penick, who had passed away the previous week? Whatever was to come to pass over this weekend (victory notwithstanding) then this chapter in his life could not be rivalled for its violin accompaniment.

Its crescendo on Friday came on the 17th when he landed one of those putts that only he can land. No fist pump for Gentle Ben. He bent over, put his hands on his knees and shook his head, just as he did 11 years ago. Then Carl "Skillet" Jackson had walked over "to check on my buddy", but this time his caddie left him alone. Crenshaw uncoiled himself, redirected the crowd's mayhem with a simple point of "he's to thank" towards his caddie and at that moment the exact nature of this fairytale started to unveil itself. This was no mere 54-year-old's swansong. This was a story of friendship overcoming the deepest adversity. America settled back for a rip-roaring yarn.

Crenshaw and Jackson first linked up 31 Masters ago. Back then, everyone would employ a local caddie to unravel the unique vagaries of the National, but a bond way beyond normal professional was struck. "We found each other a long time ago," said Crenshaw. "We're lucky that we've seen so much and found so much."

"Silver and gold I have none," chimed in Jackson. "But every year I've given him all I've got."

Except 2000, that is. That is when the 59-year-old missed his only Masters since he was 13. The doctors diagnosed colon cancer and said there was a revolutionary treatment to fix it. Inevitably it would be costly. "I said let me go," recalled Jackson. "Rather than me running up a big bill my family was going to have to pay." The camera switches from the hospital bed to the phone ringing by the caddie's side. It was his old boss, of course, telling him not to be silly, to sign the doctors' forms and to tell them to send the bill to Mr Crenshaw. "He was there when I needed him," said Jackson, one of nine siblings raised just up road from the course. "That's a brother. That's someone who loves me."

Fast forward six years and their country loves them both. Ben and Skillet, white and black, multi millionaire and cottonfield escapee, buddy and buddy. And here some of us were thinking this was just an important golf tournament.