PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- This time, for once, the caddie was steering and the player was the backseat co-pilot.
|Ben Crane's coach told him to just go out and play golf and stop worrying about his swing, with good results. (Getty Images)|
His caddie, Brett Waldman, came up with a solution that was as practical as it was hilarious. Crane hopped on the back of Waldman's scooter and they drove several blocks to TPC Sawgrass together.
The bald-headed Crane didn't wear a helmet and sat on the back, laughing all the way as they tooled through the parking lot and toward the palatial clubhouse, making for quite a sight.
"I thought it was so funny, I told him, 'Swing around the front, make sure we see some people,'" Crane laughed.
He's swinging around front again, and this time, he has both hands on the handlebars, not to mention his putter.
Rolling up one of the best putting rounds in the recent history of the event, the 33-year-old used just 22 putts and recorded nine birdies to finish with a 7-under 65, taking a one-stroke lead after the first round at the season's so-called fifth major.
Look who's driving now, huh? For Crane, who finished sixth at Sawgrass last year, the cup looked bigger than a New York City pothole.
"You smile and say, 'Yeah, that's why I play golf, right here,'" he said, animatedly.
On the same testy track where Tiger Woods missed everything he eyeballed on Thursday, Crane was his alter ego, reeling off seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch in the middle of the round to surge ahead of John Mallinger, Richard S. Johnson and Alex Cejka, who all finished 6 under.
Like the ball repeatedly pouring into the hole, Crane, No. 73 in the world rankings, definitely saw this coming.
"No, no," he laughed. "Three of the last four tournaments have been trunk slammers."
That's tour slang for missing the weekend. After a pep talk from his coach, Greg Rose, he went from missing cuts to not missing putts. Crane had been dispatching swing snippets, in a semi-panic and searching for answers, when what he really needed was to stop thinking and play.
"I was sending him videos of swings, and just like getting so technical with my game," Crane said. "He got mad at me and said, look, you need to play golf. Stop worrying about your swing. Stop worrying about your technique."
He has never had to sweat his putting stroke much. Over the previous five full seasons, he has thrice finished in the top nine in putting, putting him in a class with the silky stylings of better-known short-stick magicians like Brad Faxon, Aaron Baddeley or Woods himself.
Of course, most folks don't know it. Crane is perhaps best remembered for what he calls "The Incident," which came five years ago when playing partner Rory Sabbatini grew so weary of Crane's snail-like pace of play that he walked ahead to the green while Crane was still fidgeting in the fairway. Crane has been fined for his bad slow-play times in the past, has worked hard to shed the reputation and, admirably, doesn't hide from it.
"What did I learn from it?" he said of the Sabbatini episode. "That I'm too slow. It definitely became a focal point for me."
He even makes light of it, too.
A few years ago, Titleist filmed a commercial using several of its notable tour staffers, wherein the players gave personal swing tips that were spliced together, MTV-style, in staccato fashion. Crane's self-deprecating part at the end was to offer this piece of advice to the golfer, to be used just as they were ready to begin their swing:
"Then, stand still for one minute," he said.
That particular snippet never aired in the TV spots, but it proved that Crane isn't afraid to laugh at himself.
"Hey, I'm sober, I'm not proud," he cracked.
He ought to be bursting buttons over his effort on Thursday. According to the tour's laser-guided measuring system, he made 172 feet of putts in 18 holes. The 22-putt total didn't include any chip-ins to lower it, either.
He started with a 30-footer for birdie on his first hole, No. 10, which was one of four birdies converted from 23 feet or beyond. Crane has ranked among the top 10 in putting several times in his career, which includes two victories, but this round was distinct because of the tournament's stature.
"It was one of those special days, to say the least," he said. "You live for these days as a golfer."
Even though he played in the afternoon wave, by which time the greens are usually full of ball indentations and spike marks, he made nearly everything he saw.
"Those greens are immaculate," he gushed. "It was like putting on the hood of your car."
Like, say, the car that his wife borrowed.