By Kevin Robbins

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- That first visit to the Masters brings a message of rising assurance. Beyond the painted white clapboard with green trim lie the tumbling slopes of Augusta National Golf Club, known to most from television, printed word, first-hand accounts of The Big Oak Tree and fine, porch-in-the-South folklore. But it is fact: The home of the Masters is real and actual.

Ben Crenshaw came here as a Masters rookie in 1972, a tanned 20-year-old amateur from Texas with a fate to embrace. His arrival proved to him a truth greater than the existence of eighteen holes of golf. More than the loblolly pines and the courtly green jackets and the imprint of club founder Bobby Jones, Augusta informed Crenshaw in a very clear way that a man could be tied to a place with rope from the soul. The young entrant from Austin tied for 19th that April. He hasn't missed a Masters since.

Crenshaw starts his 42nd one Thursday. People who love the Masters appreciate that kind of longevity, maybe with the same kind of fondness they reserve for certain past champions, which Crenshaw is, twice over. They hold an equal regard for players who exude the Jonesesque decorum -- a certain trinity of modesty, humility and purity -- that made Augusta National relevant long before Horton Smith won a new spring invitational in 1934. Those people want to watch Crenshaw one more time, to get close enough to notice how his hands fit a golf club like tongue and groove. They want to see that long swing again and the high finish, the one that reminds them of willow bending. They nearly remove their caps when he's near.

That's a part of what complicates the eventual conclusion of Crenshaw's annual return to the only major championship he won. Now 61 years old, he plays so little competitive golf anymore, his schedule organized largely around time with his wife and three young daughters back in Texas, his fashionable course-architecture boutique with design partner Bill Coore, and a dissolving interest in signing for another 75 on the Champions Tour. Ben Daniel Crenshaw keeps playing the Masters. But he knows this, too: He can't always keep playing the Masters.

"Hit another one, Ben!"

crenshaw_masters_400
Ben Crenshaw in action during the 1973 Masters, his second tournament at Augusta. (Getty Images)

That was the plea of a gentleman posted on the shady side of the No. 11 tee. He and the rest of the folks following along Monday morning had just watched Crenshaw arc his ball into the dense trees on the left, where it was neither sought nor found. Crenshaw's practice-round partner, the 14-year-old amateur Tianlang Guan from China, had trotted to the lavatory, so Crenshaw poked another tee into the turf. His next shot soared down the fairway like it was 1972 all over again, but not as far, and with less of a hiss.

Gray-haired and slim, Crenshaw strolled down the fairway in corporate-gray trousers and a loose-fitting shirt in the family of medium blue. He wore smart black and white saddle Footjoy Classic wingtips in an alligator pattern. He did not dress like most of the field -- those synthetic fabrics, those hyper-fluorescent hues -- but most of the field did not become proficient in the era of persimmon and balata and wool, which is to say the Crenshaw of that sunny morning in Georgia reflected the Crenshaw who won 19 titles on the PGA Tour and a three individual NCAA championships (sharing one with University of Texas teammate Tom Kite). He was the same man on the inside.

The people who followed Crenshaw and Guan reflected the contrast of the grouping itself. There were those who wanted to witness the debut of Guan; he might have a future on the PGA Tour, and wouldn't it be something to say you saw him hit his first shot at Augusta, like those who saw Crenshaw in 1972? And there were those who came to see Crenshaw -- to study the guile and restraint tempered by a thousand mistakes of hubris. Those people are greater in number, older in years and, in all likelihood, deeper in knowledge about the history and traditions of golf at Augusta National. They didn't choose this group so they could have a look at the future of anything.

"Let's win one, Ben!"

That was the man standing Monday behind the greenside bunker at par-five No. 15. Crenshaw returned the encouragement with an ironic smile, but the fact remains that he had just parked his third shot, a magnificent little wedge punched from about sixty yards, four feet under the hole. It was perfect. It was 1972. Shots like that do win the Masters. Crenshaw himself made that valuable discovery for the first time in 1984.

Starting the third round that year two strokes out of the lead, Crenshaw shot three-under-par 33 on the front nine. He led by three at the turn. He played the second half of the course with savvy discipline, laying up in two shots on both par-five holes, making par on No. 13 and a birdie two holes later. He beat Tom Watson by two that afternoon with his caddie, Carl Jackson, marveling at how far Crenshaw had come as a Masters player since their first spring in 1976. This past Monday, the two of them walked those same nine holes again, preparing for Crenshaw's 133rd tournament round, explaining contours and angles to a 14-year-old from China, doing more teaching than learning. "We lean on experience," Jackson said. "We don't have to put as much into it."

crenshaw_masters_400b
Ben Crenshaw cries after winning the 1995 Masters. (Getty Images)

Crenshaw won again in 1995. Remember 1995? Crenshaw's longtime golf teacher -- Harvey Penick, the co-author of "The Little Red Book" -- had died the Sunday before that Masters. The funeral was Wednesday. Crenshaw was a pallbearer. He was emotionally unhinged. But he came back to Augusta, shot 70-67-69-68 to win by one, collapsed in Jackson's arms on the 18th green and explained his final-round verve as a mysterious tribute to the man he'd buried five days earlier. They call that one the Little Red Masters.

Crenshaw played only nine holes Monday. The course is so long now, too long for 61-year-old men. He had to use a fairway metal into three par-four holes, including the last one, the famous 18th. If he played the Masters only for reasons either obvious or superficial -- the fame, the money, the allure of winning again -- Crenshaw would've been gone years ago. After all, he's made just three cuts here since the Little Red Masters, which also happens to be the last time he won a tournament of any kind. But leaving the Masters, which grants a lifetime exemption to champions, isn't simple. Arnold Palmer won it four times; he finally let go after 50 starts. Gary Player, who won three, left after 52. The incomparable Jack Nicklaus, a six-time winner, played 45 of them, the last in 2005.

"There's just something about it."

That was from Nicklaus himself. He was here Tuesday. He returns each spring. He whacks a ceremonial first shot early Thursday morning. So do Palmer and Player.

No, it isn't easy, leaving these grounds and not coming back.

Crenshaw, meanwhile, does think about his looming last Masters. He thinks about the link he feels to Jones; it's something close to responsibility. He thinks about the way Augusta and the architect who designed it, Alister MacKenzie, influenced the way he shapes his own golf courses. He thinks about the white clapboard, the green trim, the loblolly pines and the jackets. He thinks about the people who come to the tournament to see him again, to watch his swing, to study his hands, to be near an emblem of Augusta. "He just comes alive," says his wife, Julie.

He finished his practice round with Guan. He did some interviews under the Big Oak. People tugged at him, wanted a picture, an autograph, a handshake, a smile. In most cases, Crenshaw complied, being the way he is. Jones would've. There were people everywhere. All the way down to pond at No. 16. To the right and left, hidden by trees and all those hills. It was Monday at the Masters. "Everything gets a little more vibrant," Crenshaw marveled.

Crenshaw went to the range a little later on. He normally would never spend that much time at a golf tournament on a Monday afternoon, but the Masters changes him. That's why it's so hard to let go. That's why it's so easy to hold on. "When they open the gates Monday, the whole place changes complexion," Crenshaw said behind the practice range, leaning against a fence. "You can't describe it unless you're here."

Here. That's what really complicates the choice. After Crenshaw decides to play his last Masters, he can go to Augusta. But he can't really be here.

"It's everything that I first saw in 1972," he said. He appeared to inventory countless things, things that are hard to articulate. Things not to be described.

Rather, he said: "To be felt."

* * *

Kevin Robbins teaches journalism at the University of Texas and is writing the biography of longtime golf professional Harvey Penick, scheduled to be published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Robbins wrote about golf and other sports from 2002 to 2012 for the Austin American-Statesman. He qualified for and finished last in the 2012 Texas Mid-Amateur.