Ben Crenshaw knew it was time. He had just turned 63, and there was no doubt that he was more than welcome to play forever at the Masters, a tournament he had won in 1984 and again in 1995. But he understood—you could even say he had a feeling—that his days of playing Augusta National Golf Club in competition were over.
“Each year it became harder and harder to break 80,” Crenshaw said. “I’m part of a bygone era when it comes to distance. I was beating my head against a brick wall. I just felt like I didn’t belong out there anymore.”
He paused. “We’re all 2 down to father time. I was out of presses.”
And so, prior to the 2015 Masters, Crenshaw announced he would be making his final appearance in the tournament he loved more than any other. “It was hard,” he said. “But it was the right thing to do.”
The Masters is the lone major championship—much less the only significant professional golf tournament—where past champions get to decide when it’s time to stop playing. The U.S. Open gives its winners a 10-year exemption. Victors of the Open Championship are exempt until age 60, and the PGA Championship allows its champions to play until they are 65.
When you win the Masters, the exemption is for life.
“Which means it’s up to you, as a player, to know when it’s time,” said Tom Watson, who won the tournament in 1977 and 1981. “I always felt like if you couldn’t compete anymore—and I don’t mean make the cut, I mean compete to win—then you shouldn’t be playing. I probably hung around a couple of years too long.”
Watson had finished T-18 at Augusta in 2010 at age 60, but then failed to make his final six cuts—even though he only missed by two shots in his final appearance. It would have been one shot had he not called a penalty on himself on the seventh green on Friday when he saw his ball move as he addressed it.
There was a brief time when Augusta National considered changing its policy on lifetime exemptions. It was called, informally, “The Doug Ford Rule.” The 1957 champion, Ford last made a cut in 1971 at age 48. But he continued to play for another 30 years—missing 21 cuts and withdrawing nine times, including the last four years he’d “competed.”
Ford wanted to become the first man to play the Masters 50 times. His 49th appearance was in 2001, when he played nine holes at age 78 before withdrawing. That was when the membership began sending letters to some past champions—Gay Brewer and Billy Casper in addition to Ford—telling them they were always welcome at the Masters but perhaps they should just come for the Champions dinner and play the Par-3 Contest and practice rounds. The club also announced that it would, in future, ask past champions to stop playing after 65.
An uproar followed. Both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, full-fledged club members (all champions are honorary members) asked the club to reconsider. Palmer, who was 72 at the time, announced that 2002 would be his final Masters. When he was asked prior to the tournament why he was going to stop playing he smiled and said, “I didn’t want to get a letter.”
That was the problem with the “Ford Rule.” It was selective. The club was never going to ask Palmer or Nicklaus or Watson or Crenshaw to stop playing. Champions like Brewer or (oddly) Casper or George Archer or Tommy Aaron would be another story.
The club relented. Ford did stop playing. Palmer returned to play two more years—and became the first man to play 50 Masters. Nicklaus played until 2005, the year he turned 65.
Like Watson, Nicklaus was a believer he should only play if he could compete. He finished T-6 in 1998—leading briefly during the final round on Sunday when he was 58—and made the cut again in 2000 en route to a T-54. But he didn’t play the weekend in his last four starts.
“I would have stopped a couple of years earlier if it hadn’t been for Peter Dawson and the R&A,” Nicklaus said. “Peter mentioned to me they were planning to play [the Open Championship] at St. Andrews in 2006, and I said that was too bad because I would be 66 and I wouldn’t be able to play. He said, ‘Would you play if we played at St. Andrews in 2005?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ Once they made the change I pretty much had to play St. Andrews that year. So, I decided I would play Augusta, too.”
Nicklaus still remembers exactly what he shot that year (77-76). “You shoot those kind of numbers it’s definitely time to stop,” he said. “I always said I never wanted to be a ceremonial golfer. That’s why I was hesitant when the club asked me to take part in the ceremonial first tee shot.”
Palmer had hit the ceremonial tee shot from 2007 until 2009. Nicklaus—reluctantly—joined him in 2010; Player two years later.
One past champion came back to play one more year for only one reason: His son was playing in the tournament.
“It was probably about 2010, I started telling [son] Kevin that he needed to win and get into the Masters so I could play one more time and hang it up,” said 1982 winner Craig Stadler. “I was grinding to break 80 by then, and it was no fun. But I wanted to hang on until Kevin got there. When he won at Phoenix [in 2014], I said, ‘That’s it. We’re going to play together as a father and son, and then I’m done.’ ”
Kevin played superbly, contending until late on Sunday when bogeys on 17 and 18 dropped him into a tie for eighth. His dad, having missed the cut, walked with him on the weekend.
“It was close to perfect,” Craig said. “My only regret was that my tee time Thursday was 40 minutes after Kevin’s. I’d really like to have seen him walk on that first tee for the first time. Beyond that though, it was perfect. I signed my final card Friday, and he was waiting there for me. It was a great moment for both of us.”
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Some players announce their farewells in advance. Nicklaus didn’t rule out a return until after he finished in 2005 although, even then, he hedged a little saying, “I do have the right to come back if I want to. But I wouldn’t think that will happen.”
A year ago, Mark O’Meara, who won in 1998 with a dramatic 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, knew before he arrived that he was done but hadn’t really told anyone except his wife Meredith. “She said to me, ‘But what if you play well?’ ” O’Meara said. “I said, ‘No, I’m done. It’s over. I’d played well in 2015 [finishing T-22], but I was fighting the golf course more and more every year. It was age [O’Meara was 61], length and just the feeling that it was time.”
O’Meara did play well—for six holes he started out one under par—but shot 78 in the first round. Afterward, he told a reporter he’d known for a long time that Friday would be his last Masters round. After shooting 81, he made it official.
“That was when I got emotional,” he said. “Talking to the media. A lot of memories came flying back while I was talking. I first played the Masters in 1980 as an amateur. Back then, I never dreamed I’d become a good enough player to win it someday. So, literally, it was a dream come true for me.
“It was tough to make the decision to walk away. But it felt right. That’s the beauty of the Masters, if you win it you get to make the decision when it’s time to stop playing.
“I didn’t want to become one of those guys who talked to the media on Friday every year and had to answer the question, ‘How much longer are you going to play?’ I felt completely at peace with my decision walking off the golf course that day. Emotional, but at peace.”
The last day, the last walk, the last putt affects them all differently.
Nicklaus insists he wasn’t that emotional finishing the second round of his 45th Masters. His last hole was the ninth, so his final walk wasn’t what one might expect.
“Actually, I was more upset than anything because I missed a four-foot birdie putt,” he said. “I wanted to finish with that birdie.”
In his post-round interview that day, Nicklaus admitted he “kind of lost it” walking up the hill to the ninth green after hitting a 6-iron “off a hanging-lie,” close to the flagstick. All he remembers now is the frustration over missing the birdie putt.
While Nicklaus claimed to be under control when he finished, he remembers that his son Steve, who was caddieing for him, was not. “We can’t find any pictures of Steve from that day where he’s not crying,” Nicklaus said.
Three months later, at St. Andrews, Nicklaus did finish with a birdie—but still found the ending less-than-perfect. “I wanted to finish on Sunday.”
Watson’s final round at Augusta, in 2016, was filled with emotion—much of it prior to the final walk up 18. “I had so many friends and family there, and the whole week kind of became a celebration. By the time we got to 18 on Friday, it felt more like a curtain call than anything else.”
There was one poignant moment though that still makes Watson’s voice go very soft. As he walked up the hill at 18 for the final time, he paused and waited for Neil Oxman, his caddie and friend, to catch up to him.
“I told him, ‘Ox, we’re walking on the green together. No argument. We’re doing it.’ ”
It was Oxman, then working summers as a PGA Tour caddie to pay for law school, who first suggested to Bruce Edwards in 1973 that he ask Watson if he could caddie for him that week in St. Louis. That was the start of a 31-year, “closer-than-brothers” relationship between Watson and Edwards. When Edwards died of ALS in 2004—on the first day of the Masters—Oxman became his proxy on the bag whenever his political-consulting business allowed him to get away to caddie.
“It meant a lot to me to have Ox walk up the hill with me,” Watson said. “We were both thinking about Bruce.”
Crenshaw readily admits that he cried repeatedly during his last round in 2015. And, when he walked onto the 18th green and saw Carl Jackson, his longtime caddie and friend, waiting for him, he lost it again. Jackson was fighting colon cancer at the time and too sick to work, but then-Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, walked him onto the 18th green.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Crenshaw said. “That the club would do that for Carl and for me, was unbelievable. It was one of those moments you never forget.”
Jackson beat cancer and will be at Augusta this year. Crenshaw plans to spend time with him there. “A close friend,” he said. “He was the one who taught me that golf course.”
Clearly, he taught him well.
Stadler also will be at Augusta, arriving the Sunday prior to the tournament to play with a friend, but won’t take part in any of the Monday to Wednesday practice rounds. “If Kevin [who has battled injuries recently] makes it back I might play nine holes with him,” he said. “And the Par 3.”
The old champions still enjoy teeing it up in the Par-3 Contest. Last year, Watson, paired with Nicklaus and Player, won it by shooting a five-under-par 22. Nicklaus’s grandson G.T., one of his caddies, made an unofficial hole-in-one at the ninth hole.
“Now that was special,” Nicklaus said. “Anytime one of your grandchildren has a moment like that, it’s memorable.”
Nicklaus has 22 grandchildren. As of next year all will have caddied for him (he’ll have two caddies this year and three next year) in the Par 3. “I don’t think I’ll try to go through all 22 again,” he said, laughing.
Nicklaus played the ninth hole last year, which he normally doesn’t do. When his wife, Barbara, asked him why, he told her: “If I’d made a hole-in-one or if I made birdie and Tom three-putted I would have tied him.”
The old guys may stop playing the golf course, but they never stop competing.