Exclusive: Experience Makes Ben Crane a Threat at The Masters

Standing over the first tee shot in his first ever appearance at The Masters in 2006, Ben Crane was nervous. The most meaningfully meaningless tee shot in golf has a way of doing that to a man.

“I was standing on the first tee and my mother-in-law, who is a big golfer, was standing just a few feet away and she was wondering how nervous I actually was,” Crane said. “I had a water bottle in my hand, and when you get nervous, you’re throat gets dry really quick. So I was standing there on the first tee and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I’m really thirsty.’ I grabbed my water bottle and I was going to take a drink from it but nothing was coming out. I looked at the bottle and the cap was still on it, and my mother-in-law was like, ‘Yep, he’s nervous.’”

The anxieties surrounding the nostalgia of Augusta National make that already difficult first shot on Tea Olive seem impossible. The fairway bunker at the bend of the dogleg on the right expands and the trees that hang perilously on the left encroach upon the fairway at its right.

Cuts refuse to cut, and draws refuse to draw. It’s as if the Gods of Augusta are merely announcing their presence. That opening tee shot doesn’t actually have any bearing on the tournament (short of something disastrous happening), but the challenge of overcoming the excess emotion that comes with it is still significant.

However, the pressures of The Masters don’t exactly melt after that tee shot either. Instead they mount, but that is simply part of the game that comes with the stage of a major championship. And faced with the very real prospects of being left out of this year’s Masters, Ben Crane will gladly welcome the pressures of Augusta later this week.

Crane did have a PGA Tour victory at last year’s McGladrey Classic, but it came on the PGA Tour Fall Series, and he wasn’t awarded with an automatic invitation into the Masters.

Entering the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago as the No. 48-ranked player in the Official World Golf Rankings, Crane hadn’t yet received his invitation. Even worse, Ben Crane failed to make the cut and was forced to watch from home while his fate was decided for him during the weekend.

“I played well on Friday (at Bay Hill) and I thought I would make the cut, but then I realized that I wouldn’t have control of it. Luckily, I had a lot of good tournaments prior to that and it put me still in pretty good position,” Crane said. “But, yeah, it was incredibly tough not to be out there and not being able to have the opportunity to lock it up myself.”

Luckily for Ben Crane, he was able to hold onto the No. 49 spot in the rankings and earned a Masters bid as one of the world’s Top 50 players. It also put him in position to play without the pressures of having to win this past week at the Shell Houston Open (unlike South African Ernie Els who could only play his way into the field with a victory after playing in each of the last 18 Masters.)

Crane was able to turn in a solid performance with a Top 30 in Houston, but now the 36-year old tour vet will turn his attentions to the hallowed grounds, a place where he hasn’t fared particularly well in four prior appearances.

“I think one of the things that is so difficult is that we all want to go there and win, and get invited back every year. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to play good that week,” Crane said. “If we were talking about any other event on the PGA Tour, you get there and you say, ‘Well my game is in this kind of shape, and I need to work on this.’ You’re just kinda piecing it together.

“When you get to Augusta you’re trying to make your game peak for that week, and you’re doing everything you possibly can, and then when you try to just relax and play golf it’s hard. Mentally, that is a big challenge to go there and excel, and I think that’s why people who have played there a number of times have an advantage.”

That experience at Augusta has put him in a different place mentally than in his previous appearances, where he had missed the cut in three of four prior trips. Most importantly, now Ben Crane has a better understanding of the nuances that make Augusta National so different.

“Now, I think I hold it in a better light than I did my first couple of times, where I would make a lot of Masters rookie mistakes. You go out there and you shoot at some of these pins where you say, ‘Oh, it’s only 140 yards, of course I can go right at that pin.’ Then you miss it four feet in the wrong direction and you’re making bogey really fast. So, there is a learning curve to that golf course and it just takes some experience,” Crane said.

Now set to make his fifth appearance at The Masters, Crane seems to have a better understanding of how to navigate Augusta National. And despite the fact that Augusta has been overpowered in recent years and Ben Crane wouldn’t qualify as a big hitter (119th in driving distance in 2012), Crane thinks he has a game plan that will allow him to contend.

“You have to put together a great plan to attack each hole and what it comes down to is getting your short game sharp. The guy who ends up winning is the guy who holes a lot of putts and is great with a wedge,” Crane said. “So that will be the primary focus.”

But with all the distractions that come with Augusta National that will obviously be easier said than done.

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