How Irish Open victory helped shape Ben Crenshaw’s career

Ah, to be 24 again. Ben Crenshaw wasn’t asked if there was a price he would pay if such a possibility could be purchased, but he offered this: At 64, and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, he’s proud to remember what happened in his world when he was 24.

He won the Irish Open at Portmarnock Golf Club.

“I cherish that win. I really do,” Crenshaw said of that 1976 success. “It was my first international win and that’s important; it’s part of your education as a golfer.”

Never would Crenshaw insult anyone’s intelligence and suggest that the green jackets he won at the Masters Tournament in 1984 and 1995 weren’t the highlights of his career. They most certainly are. But as a man who embraces the rich history of golf throughout the world, Crenshaw takes special pride in what happened 40 years ago, when he was still new to the professional game and still figuring out links.

In just his second year on the PGA Tour, Crenshaw had won twice early in the season and was gaining quite a following. Billy Casper, a three-time major winner, “actively recruited me to travel to the Irish Open”, Crenshaw said.

He doesn’t remember exactly what convinced him to go. Crenshaw only said he’s thrilled that he did.

“I had played my first British Open in 1974,” Crenshaw said, “so I had played links. But 1976 was my first trip to Ireland.”

He loved everything about it. Not because he won, for if truth be told, Crenshaw doesn’t remember all the shot-by-shot details. No, what has stayed with him all these years are the people he met, the stories he heard, the special type of golf that he learned.

That he shot 284 to defeat Brian Barnes and Billy Casper by two strokes doesn’t so much resonate with Crenshaw as the memory of Jimmy Kinsella’s opening 69.

“He was a local kid. I think he was a hurling star,” Crenshaw said. “But he was a fine player and I remember how excited people were for him.” As much as the victory was a highlight to his week, Crenshaw remembers fondly the night he was invited to dinner at Joe Carr’s home and the late, Christy O’Connor Sr was there.

“What men. The cream of the crop,” Crenshaw said.

Even more special, Crenshaw said he got to watch O’Connor hit golf balls one day at Royal Dublin. “That man could do anything with a golf ball. He was a real master.” Mention that a pair of soon-to-be-famous golfers also teed it up that week — Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo — and Crenshaw offers a light laugh. That’s how long ago it was. But it was the chance to meet an older competitor, Harry Bradshaw, that provides a lasting memory.

“Just having a conversation with him made the trip even more special,” Crenshaw said. “He told me of that famous story with the whiskey bottle from the 1949 Open Championship.”

It is such a flavourful chapter in Open folklore, how Bradshaw’s ball came to rest in a whiskey bottle and he chose to play it as it was. Glass shattered and even though the story was 27 years old, a young Crenshaw was mesmerised.

“I loved the history of golf and these were men who had seen the history made,” Crenshaw said. “It was a wonderful experience for me.” Of Portmarnock, Crenshaw recalls a difficult time figuring out the great links. “It was a mean links,” he said.

He opened with 73 and was a few off the lead, then moved in front with rounds of 69-69. A closing 73 was enough to hold on, but the course, he said, was the winner.

“Especially that (par 3) 15th hole,” Crenshaw said.

“I vividly remember that hole. I used to call it the easiest par-5 in the world. You’d have to start it out-of-bounds to get it on the green.”

Crenshaw enthusiastically returned to Portmarnock in 1977 to try and defend his title. Unfortunately, his 284 that year was one too little, as Hubert Green prevailed by one.

Still, it offered Crenshaw a chance to rekindle friendships and spend even more time studying the details that made Portmarnock such a great links, and it inspired him to make trips to Ireland in subsequent years.

“I needed that to make me a better golfer,” Crenshaw said, “to make me a more complete person.”


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