Ben Crane will tee off this Thursday as the defending champion at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The Portland, Oregon, native — and new resident of the Volunteer State — earned his fifth victory on the PGA Tour at Southwind last year, leading after all four rounds (and requiring 30 holes on Sunday to win the rain-soaked tournament).
What stands out in your memory from your win last year?
It’s amazing how crazy this game is. You can be feeling like your game is a long ways off, then everything can turn. Remembering the week, it was incredibly special. I love St. Jude, and I’ve always been amazed by FedEx. Going to St. Jude every year is incredible. We moved to Tennessee — to Nashville — right after the tournament last year. It’s cool to have won in our adopted home state.
What kind of adjustments are necessary for all the weather delays you had last year?
I was working a lot on my mental game. We started and stopped a lot. I knew we’d be playing a lot of golf on Sunday. I did a lot of praying, imagery work, trying to get my mind ready for a marathon. Holding the lead from beginning to end, you know you’re the hunted. We knew we had a lead going into the last few holes, so I was able to play conservatively and not take as many risks. Southwind is a tough golf course.
It was an incredible feeling, carrying that much emotional load. I hardly slept on Saturday night, I was so excited and nervous about the final round. My wife gave me an incredible pep talk [over the phone] late Saturday night. She told me, ‘You’ve encouraged so many of your friends, you’ve kept a good attitude through struggles. Now I think it’s your turn to go out and win.’ It lifted my spirits. I walked out into the kitchen at the house we were staying — at 5:00 Sunday morning — and our friends were cooking breakfast, everyone standing there, half asleep. And I yelled, ‘Glory to God, what a day!’ Perspective shifted. I was just excited about the opportunity [to win].
At what point in a tournament do you evaluate your chances of winning? After a certain round . . . or not until the back-9 on Sunday?
I had a four-shot lead when I went to bed Saturday night, so it was definitely on my mind. I knew if I played well, it would be tough for someone to catch me. My goal was to play my game, take as few risks as possible. Once you get on the course, you feel better. But away from the course, you know how cool it is to win a tournament on the PGA Tour. It’s hard to shake.
Among the holes on the TPC Southwind course, is there one you find especially challenging? A hole you like to attack?
The course has a lot of tough holes. Since the switch to Bermuda greens, the course is one of the best on the PGA Tour. You can’t hit the ball in the rough and score. If you put the ball in the fairway consistently, you know you’ll have the chance to attack some of the pins.
The par-3 at Number 4, when that pin is in the front, and the water is on the left, it’s a really tough hole to par. The fifth hole is an incredibly tough hole. If you play that hole one-over for the tournament, that’s pretty good. Number 9 is a critical hole, Number 11 as well. Then Number 18. But there’s no easy birdie.
What element of your game do you feel is the strongest these days, and what are you working to improve?
I’ve been working on my health. [Crane has suffered recent back and hip ailments.] I’m starting to feel really excited about the strides I’ve made. I’ve been working on my ball-striking, but it doesn’t seem to really move the meter one way or the other. It’s really been my chipping and putting; that’s where I’ve been putting my most focus. When I putt well — as I did last year in Memphis — I can have a good tournament. I gained four strokes on the field the first couple of days.
Who was your favorite golfer growing up?
It varied at different points of my childhood, but I certainly loved watching Greg Norman. I loved the way he worked on his fitness. I was a big fan of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones. But the guys I watched . . . Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. When I hit my teenage years and Tiger Woods started winning [amateur tournaments], that was inspiring as well.
Has the golf landscape shifted since Tiger’s struggles began? Is it a new world for you and the rest of the PGA Tour?
It’s interesting the way golf has evolved over the last six months to two years. What Tiger Woods has done in this sport is second to none. But no one expected Jordan Spieth to dominate tournaments the way he has. Is he the next Tiger Woods? So far, yes.
The overall game is so different from when I joined the Tour 14 years ago. These are athletes. The Tiger effect is just starting to show itself. These kids grew up watching Tiger when he was the coolest person in all of sports, after Michael Jordan left basketball. Athletes who could play any sport growing up [chose golf]. We’re pulling from a larger pool of athletes. And it shows in the scoring. There can be ten guys within three shots of the lead. Scores are more bunched than they’ve ever been because there are more good players.