It is about time Lanny Wadkins arrived. Pro golf needs him. He likes to dive off cliffs. He is human enough to grin when he makes a putt and grimace when he blows one and he even has the audacity to defile the practice tee by purposely hitting his quick-out shot, also known as the Spiro special, or (whisper) a shank. At the Doral-Eastern Open earlier this month he showed why tour followers were beginning to regard him as the freshest personality since Lee Trevino. While the suntanned clan diligently went about the grim work of perfecting the one-piece takeaway, Wadkins had some fun with his broken Tinker Toy swing, slapping out a few smart-looking shanks before retiring to the pool area for a swim. The rookie didn't feel like practicing and, anyway, the wind was blowing the wrong way.
If Wadkins appears brash and confident, his golf game is not exactly invisible, either. This is the 22-year-old who turned veteran pros' necks scarlet by agreeing he might win $200,000 in his first year on their tour and promptly began filling his bank accounts with winnings. In retrospect, the figure might have been modest. On rounds of 72-72-70-72-284, Wadkins finished in 16th place in the Doral, eight shots behind the winner, Jack Nicklaus. This brought him only $2,325—but then it was the first time in four weeks he'd failed to finish in the top ten. During that period Wadkins played 17 consecutive rounds of par or better, and since the tour began in January he has won $44,277, good for eighth place on the prize list, the best start for a rookie in 10 years.
"I like his attitude," says Nicklaus. "He's a very positive kid. He thinks he can win and he thinks he can play. If you don't have faith in yourself, baby, nobody's going to have faith in you."
When Nicklaus came on the tour 10 years ago, he felt he could win and he did. He pocketed first-place money in three tournaments that rookie year and finished in the top ten 10 times in his first six months. Since then, a bagful of promising youngsters have popped up. "They may say, 'Yeah, I'm going to win,' but they don't really mean it," says Nicklaus, and Wadkins agrees.
When Wadkins arrived on tour last October, the old boys said that his swing was impure, full of tilts and jerks. Worse, his putter wasn't very pure, either. The whole contaminated combination was likely to send young Lanny back to finish his studies at Wake Forest University. It was there, to be sure, that Wadkins had finished second in the 1970 Heritage Classic, beating all the pros but Bob Goalby, but he was playing for fun then. This was a new golf game.
Well, nothing's changed. Lanny Wadkins and his wife Rachel, who has a pair of double-eagle green eyes, are enjoying growing up rich on the pro circuit, where life so far has been nonstop golf, swimming, tennis and shopping. This summer they expect to return to a friend's home in the mountains of Virginia where, as in the past, they will water ski and high dive off a cliff into a lake. "We're having so much fun," Wadkins said wistfully last week, "you kind of worry something's going to happen."
There has been some misfortune. In December, Rachel gave birth prematurely and the child died a day later. And last month a thief visited their motel room and swiped all of Lanny's bright golf slacks. The burglar probably wanted to dress like a pro. But maybe not. He took some of Rachel's dresses, too.
Wadkins began playing golf in his hometown, Richmond, when he was eight years old. He broke 80 when he was 10 and at 13 he and his younger brother Bobby rode a train all night to the National Pee Wee championships in Orlando, Fla., where Lanny shot three under par on the opening day—the first time he had broken par—and two under the second, a tournament record no Pee Wee has since equaled.
In those days, he hit the ball just like Ben Hogan, and putted the same way, his stroke on the greens having something of the quaver of the over-90 group in a seniors tournament. The look was deceiving. At 16 he finished 18th in the 1966 U.S. Amateur and, as his putting improved, so did his scoring. By 1969 he was named to his first Walker Cup team and in 1970, at the age of 20, he was ready, finishing first or second in all but two tournaments he entered.
Wadkins turned pro last July, forgoing defense of his amateur title and bogeying the fond hopes of the United States Golf Association, a group that would like to find another Bobby Jones. Wadkins might just have been their man, but he was $12,000 in debt and dissatisfied with the stringent rules of amateur golf. "Amateur competition now is just like college basketball," says Wadkins. "It's a steppingstone to the pros. If I was going to lose money, I figured I might as well do it as a pro."
If he is going to make money, Wadkins will do it despite his swing. Only 5'8½" and 160 pounds, he hunches over the ball at address, his hands held extremely low, and then, as he picks up the club, almost as though it were for laughs, he tilts his shoulders in an odd fashion. "I don't really know very much about theory, just the basics," he says. "I was taught them and then just told to 'whomp it.' That's what I do.
"It's not exactly like Jim Simons," Wadkins says, speaking of his Wake Forest teammate who led last year's U.S. Open after the third day. "He's a real fundamentalist, carries notes around and everything. We play together and it just blows his mind. I'll hit a shot and he'll say, 'How did you do that?' and I'll say. 'I just whomped it, Jim.'"
There's a little more to it than that. Wadkins once played 72 holes of golf in a day, and he has been known to spend an entire day on the practice tee; that is, if the wind is blowing the right way and there is some lush turf to hit. It was this idiosyncrasy that left Rachel fuming before the Inverrary Classic. Paired with tennis star Pancho Gonzales in the pro-am, Lanny decided to withdraw for a day of practice. Rachel had been counting on a complimentary tennis lesson. She forgave Lanny when he finished second, winning $16,530.
"I think I've learned to manage shots," says Wadkins. "I don't throw away as many as I used to." He was referring to his amateur days, when the combination of playing on easier courses and against tepid competition blunted his will to play well. That is one reason why he never did dominate the amateurs as Nicklaus had.
At the Bing Crosby tournament earlier in the year, a girl read Wadkins' palm and predicted that April, the time of the Masters, would be a very good month. "I've had it on my mind ever since," he said. "Maybe it'll work and I'll win."
That is the brash Wadkins talking. He does not speak of winning any old tournament; major championships are his game. He points out that he hits the ball high, good for Augusta, and that he drives the ball far and straight, nice for the Open.
"To be classified as a great player," he says, "when your career's over you have to have won about five or six major championships. I like to think I can do that, maybe 10 or so."
Last year, after Wadkins had announced he would be satisfied with about $200,000 worth of tournament checks, a smiling Arnold Palmer talked to him. "He said something sarcastic," Wadkins will only say. Whatever the remark was, it probably could stand editing now. When Lanny Wadkins stands up to swing these days, nobody—not even Arnold Palmer—laughs. Sometimes the other pros cry a little, but they might as well get used to that.