Former Masters champ giddy about rookie status on senior tour

Thursday, January 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN (AP) _ Captain Comeback is ready to try for another one.

After several years of watching his game decline as he pursued more of life off the course, two-time Masters champion and former Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw turns 50 on Friday with his eye on the senior tour.

For the first time since joining the regular tour in 1973, he'll be the new kid on the course. He'll start his first season on the senior tour at the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne, Fla., Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

``I'm going to have fun being a rookie,'' Crenshaw said. ``I have been away from competitive golf for a long time. I'm looking forward to getting back in.''

For about 10 years now, Crenshaw says he's been more about getting out.

A three-time NCAA champion, Crenshaw was a fresh-faced rookie out of Q-School when he won his first title at the 1973 Texas Open. Laser sharp with a putter, Crenshaw won 19 tournaments and played on four Ryder Cup teams. He won the Masters in 1984 and '95, his last victory.

After that, Crenshaw devoted more time to his family and less time to golf. The first of his three daughters was born in 1987 and he wanted to watch them grow up.

Once he turned 40, the drive to win wasn't so strong and in recent years Crenshaw has spent more time developing his golf course architecture business.

``I just became less competitive as time went on,'' he said. ``I was a late father and you tend to view things a little differently.''

As his girls grew, so did his scores. It became harder to stay competitive on a tour with younger men driving the ball unprecedented distances. He played in 11 tournaments last year and made only one cut, finishing 59th at the Kemper Open. Ranked 46th in career earnings on the PGA tour, he earned just $7,770 last year.

But the down time also included one of the greatest moments of his career _ as captain of the United States 1999 Ryder Cup team that rallied on the final day to defeat the Europeans.

``I will always daydream about that week and that day,'' he said. ``It was unbelievable.''

He also got into politics, becoming friends and an occassional golf partner of George W. Bush. He joined a picket line in support of Bush at the Texas governor's mansion during the 2000 presidential election controversy.

Now Crenshaw says the senior tour has sparked a new competitive fire.

``I relish the opportunity to start the tour,'' he said. ``There's not many sports where you can still do anything after 50.''

His wife, Julie, is happy he's embracing the opportunity.

``He's excited about playing again,'' she said. ``He hasn't played in about four years in a consistant manner. It's a whole new world out there.

``I love traveling and watching him play.''

Crenshaw figures to be a hot commodity on the senior circuit where the rookies are expected to win, something he hasn't done in a long time. Plus, the tour counts on names like Crenshaw to keep fans interested.

The tour has plans for sweeping changes to boost interest, including putting microphones on players, allowing the gallery to walk down the fairway over the final four holes and asking players to conduct tournament clinics.

Crenshaw said the quality of play on tour is too good to expect to win right away.

``It's almost like some players go into overdrive. They play better on the Senior Tour,'' he said.

Crenshaw said he hopes to play as many as 20 events, not too many that it keeps him away too long from the family. He'll start with a three-tournament Florida swing and evaluate his game from there.

``I'm going to have to examine just what the heck happened,'' Crenshaw said. ``I want to play a lot this year. The only thing that's keeping me back is three growing girls at home.

``A lot of the fellows when they start the senior tour, your family's out of the house and it's just you and your wife. That's when their game gets really sharp.''

Crenshaw admits his game is not where he wants it to be. His body isn't either.

``My body has been a little inactive. I have not been so diligent,'' on the practice range, he said.

And that golden putter?

``That's a question mark,'' he said.

The only certain is that Crenshaw wants to be competitive again.