Sloppy man In A Clean Game

Masters champion Craig Stadler may not suit golf's image makers, but he suits himself just perfectly
April 19, 1982

In the basement of Craig Stadler's house, a sort of subterranean bunker carved into the side of a mountain on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, there is on the wall near the bar a framed copy of David Forgan's The Golfer's Creed, the manifesto familiar to golfers everywhere. "...[Golf] is a contest, a duel, or a melee," part of it goes, "calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control. It is a test of temper, a trial of honour, a revealer of character. It affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman...."

Stadler sees the passage frequently enough and knows the philosophy well, even if he has never bothered to memorize Forgan's prose. But he's no student of golf. He has barely had a lesson in his life and couldn't care less about theory. He once watched his swing on videotape, pronounced it "ugly," and has never looked at it again. He is just a player, a good old boy who likes to drink beer and margaritas, eat a big steak and laugh all night.

And whether he follows The Golfer's Creed to its last sanctimonious letter is a matter of debate, depending on whom you talk to. He has been playing the game—to the exclusion of almost everything else—and getting better and better at it for 22 of his 28 years. No one disputes the fact that he is a hard thinker about the game, a prodigious hitter, a gutsy trouble shooter, a clever soft-touch artist on and around the greens. He is simply one terrific player.

The numbers spoke for themselves even before Stadler won the Masters on Sunday. His earnings have increased steadily in each of his first six years on the tour—from $2,702 and 196th on the money list as a rookie in 1976 to $218,829 and eighth, for the second year in a row, in 1981. After four months and 12 tournaments this year, Stadler has two victories and a second, fourth, fifth and sixth and leads the money list with $211,557. There are those who feel he'd be even farther ahead of the pack if his legendary temper hadn't gotten the better of him at the Crosby, the Doral Open, the Bay Hill Classic and the TPC, any or all of which tournaments he could have won. So how does Stadler feel about all of this?

"Perfect," he said one beautiful blue and white afternoon during a quick break from the tour at Lake Tahoe a few weeks ago. He was beaming a jolly smile from his round, ruddy, mustachioed face, and one huge hand was wrapped around a cold can of beer that was resting on a belly that quivered and shook like a bowl full of jelly. He was every inch and every pound—220 of them, or thereabouts—the Walrus. The happy Walrus. All over Stadler's house there are walrus carvings and walrus pictures. His woods are covered by walrus heads, in the form of converted hand puppets found by Sue Stadler, Craig's wife of three years, during a tour stop in Houston. Sue, who is often mistaken for LPGA star Nancy Lopez-Melton, spends a fair amount of time on golf courses telling folks who have a different impression that her husband is a sweet and sensitive guy. "Once at Greensboro some guy was giving Craig a hard time, and I think he thought I thought he was cute," she says. "Finally I said to him, 'Sir, my husband is not an S.O.B.' and walked away. And the guy's friends really gave it to him for acting like such a jerk in front of Craig Stadler's wife."

"Perfect," says Stadler. "Just perfect." He's a man with a perfect nickname, a perfect wife, a perfect 2-year-old son named Kevin, a perfect job and, soon, a perfect new house in Nevada. "Perfect" is the word Stadler uses to describe just about everything that is not bad enough to throw a golf club at. Which, nowadays, is almost everything, especially his golf game.

The thing is, Stadler may be one of the most perfect things to happen to the golf tour since Lee Trevino, even if the golf tour and some of its more staid devotees are a little slow to pick up on this. The problem—"their problem," says Stadler—is his image. Sure, Stadler gets mad when he messes up, which makes him about as unique on the tour as blond hair. He has been known to throw a club or two, but not once—nothing serious, anyway—since his world-class toss at the Southern Open in 1979. He mutters a naughty word in anger now and again, but only at himself and with nowhere near the frequency of dozens of other tour players, including some of America's favorites. True, his caddie once walked off the golf course in disgust with Stadler right in the middle of a British Amateur, but that happened in 1975. All his caddies since have liked him. And guess what? So do the other players, as if that should count for anything. He has yet to make it with the public and the press. "What separates Craig from the other players," says one veteran observer of the game, "is that he's sloppy. He's a sloppy man in a clean sport."

All right, so he carries a few extra pounds, and in past years he didn't always tuck in his shirt. He does now. He even dresses in coordinates. So what if he won the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1980 while wearing a wild and woolly beard? He won, didn't he? At least he's different from the others.

He's the easiest pro to identify on the course, either from a distance or close up—which is no insignificant distinction because the PGA does not require its look-alike players to wear numbers on their shirts. He is neither beach-boy blond nor matinee-idol handsome, nor is he any other kind of tall and tan and young and lovely. That clearly sets him apart from your Beanses and Burnses, Crenshaws and Clampetts, narrowing down the field considerably. And he's not one of your wiry, hard-cut bespectacled types like Hale Irwin. And, except for Saturdays and Sundays, when he is almost always playing near the lead, he hardly ever moves along behind massive galleries, so you know you can't be watching a Nicklaus or a Palmer or a Trevino or a Watson.

Even from 300 yards, you can pick out Stadler, arms angled out over gut like the eaves of an A-frame as he gets ready to swing or the Walrus waddle as he comes up a fairway. In a word—Stadler's word—he's fat. But he's a good kind of fat—the I'm-fat-because-that's-the-way-I-am-and-I'm-happy kind of fat. He slimmed himself down once, losing 35 pounds in one month, mostly for the sake of his appearance. "I felt good," he says. "But I didn't feel comfortable. Especially putting. My arms kept trying to float away." So he put most of the weight back on. What the hell. "If people don't like me personally it's only because they don't know me," he says. "I'm not a bad guy, really. I just get mad at myself when I don't play as well as I know I can. Where's the crime in that? I hit a lousy shot, I'm going to get mad."

We tend to forget that once there was another fat man in golf, a man who wore unfashionable clothes and had a ridiculous crew cut. He was absolutely hated by the public, partly because he was a sloppy man in a clean sport and partly because he was in the process of unseating Arnold Palmer, the first golfer to win the working-class hearts of America. That man's name was Jack Nicklaus. Not until Jack had lost 40 pounds and changed his hairstyle did the public finally begin loving him.

At the moment, Stadler considers reporters his greatest enemies, not that he really gives a damn—or so he claims. "They've taken the liberty to do with me just about what they please," he says, "because I've never said much about it or really cared. They want to make me the John McEnroe of golf. I scowl. I probably look mean. I don't smile a whole hell of a lot."

"He smiles when he's not playing," Sue puts in. "All the time."

"Golf does not go home with me," says Stadler with conviction. "It starts at the first tee and ends at the 18th hole. I might show a little excitement if I win. But if I shoot a 78 and blow a tournament on the last day, I'm not going to be a pain in the ass the rest of the night. On the golf course it's a different story. My feelings are kind of a mixture of things. It adds up to sort of disgust, I think, and it's disgust with myself. Everybody's been talking about my temper this year because I'm playing so well. I play rotten, nobody says a word. I play great, they say, 'Oh, he's got a temper.' Which is fine. I do have a temper. But as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with getting upset. I mean, you're out there for five hours and you're not allowed to show any of your feelings? Something's wrong with that. There's just too much concentration, too much thought going on. Something's got to show."

Of course it does, and many people watch Stadler the way they watch the Indy 500—just waiting for a fiery crash. "I get called a lot of things out there," says Stadler. "I get Walrus probably 30 times a round now. That's O.K, but say I plug it in a bunker or hit in the water—every once in a while you get yourself in that little frame of mind where you howl 'Gaaaaahd... !' and take the club back to the bag a little angry. There's always someone there hollering 'Break it!' or 'Throw it!'

"Just once I'd like to open the paper one morning somewhere and read an article about how well I'm playing," says Stadler. "It doesn't happen." He reads from an imaginary paper: " 'Stadler shot a 65 yesterday but he blew his temper on the 17th hole, made a bogey and should have shot 64.'

"It's like I'm the only guy with a temper. Everybody else is Mike Reid. My temper was a problem, yes, although it took me a real long time to admit it. I don't think it is anymore. I used to make a bad shot, and it would stay with me for three or four holes. Then I got it down to two or three holes. Then, to two or three shots. Now if I make a bad shot, make a bad mental mistake, I'll get mad and I'll get hot at myself. But the next shot I'm fine, I know what I want to do. I'm ready for it. Like in the final round of the Crosby, when I hit my tee ball onto the rocks on 17 when I'm tied for the lead, I'm steaming like a smokestack walking down the fairway, but I get to the green and by that time I'm O.K."

Of course he lost that tournament to Jim Simons. It was easy for the writers and TV commentators to say that Stadler's temper cost him the Crosby, but Simons shot a brilliant 66 at Pebble Beach, and few people noted how graciously Stadler congratulated Simons when it was all over.

"I think that most of us agree that Craig gets a bad rap," says Scott Simpson, Stadler's former roommate at USC and now a friend and fellow touring pro. "Irwin throws clubs. So do Lanny Wadkins, J.C. Snead and lots of other guys. When Crenshaw gets mad, he's 'colorful.' When Andy Bean gets mad, he's the 'big ol' country boy.' When Weiskopf yells an obscenity it's macho. People love it. And when Craig gets mad they jump all over him. A lot of guys are no fun to play with. I've honestly never heard anyone say that about Craig. He's a great guy. He growls and snorts and stuff, but it just seems to pump him up—this year more so than ever."

"Everybody I know likes Craig," says Mark Pfeil, another touring pro. "His temper isn't the kind that bothers other players. He never gets mad at anyone but himself. Some guys you know you can't talk to till they talk to you first. Craig isn't that way."

Says Weiskopf, "How can I not like Craig? He's the best thing that ever happened to me. He makes me look good."

Stadler admits that he grew up a member of the privileged class in the posh Southern California community of La Jolla. As much to keep chubby young Craig busy as for any other reason, his father, a pharmacist and a member of the La Jolla Country Club, introduced his son to golf when he was six. Stadler was instantly smitten. "In the summer I'd play four or five times a week," he says. "Beach in the morning, golf in the afternoons, caddie on the weekends." For night play he dug holes in the back yard, and often he'd go across the street and drive rocks into a big gully for hours while listening to baseball games on radio. "From the age of 10 on, I was your basic fanatic," he says. "I didn't know any better." He and his buddies played day after day. When boredom threatened to move in, they would devise new ways to play, like "cross-country." "We'd go out on the course, play from the first tee to the 9th green, stuff like that, and call it a par-12 or something. Just have a ball," he says. "There was a lot of club-whipping and club-breaking back then. Hell, it was the thing to do when you were 10 years old—see how long you could throw it. I grew up with a couple of kids who had worse tempers than I had. And my best friend's dad had the worst temper of all of us."

Of course, the day came when Stadler's father finally laid down the law—didn't Deacon Palmer once take young Arnie's clubs away until the boy learned to control his temper? Stadler's father said, "Craig, if I ever see you throw a club again, I'm taking them away."

Craig got the message clearly enough. "After that," he says, smiling, "I made sure he never saw me."

Soon enough Stadler had himself a golf scholarship to USC and glided through his studies without much sweat, although he was forced to switch his business major because he was careless about taking the prerequisite courses. "I never cared too much about anything else anyway," he says. "Golf was always numero uno." During his college days he discovered the art of serious beer drinking and became as well known in NCAA golf circles for his guzzling as he was for his 300-yard drives and 212° tantrums. In 1973 he won the U.S. Amateur at Inverness by the ridiculously easy score of six-up with five holes to play. The next time he was heard from he was at Hoylake, England for the 1975 British Amateur, site of the infamous caddie walkoff.

"Well, we certainly can't forget about that, can we," says Stadler, "since it still seems to come up in the papers about three times a year. It happened on the third hole, a par-5. I hit a bad tee shot and slammed the driver into the bag a little harder than normal, near his thumb but not quite on it. Five shots later, after three-putting, I let the putter drop on the green and walked away toward the next tee. I told the caddie to pick up the putter, and he looked at me and said, 'I don't have to pick up your bleeping putter.... And I don't have to carry your bleeping bag.' He dropped it right at my feet. I said something like 'See you later,' and right away this huge guy comes out of the gallery and says, 'Well, I'll carry your bag for you, laddie.' " And so it went.

The following year Stadler qualified for the PGA Tour and, setting out to seek his fortune in an orange Camaro, found out what life as a "rabbit" is all about. He played marvelously in six Monday qualifiers, shooting 71 five times and 70 once—and got himself into one tournament. The $2,702 he earned didn't make much of a dent in his $24,000 in traveling expenses. "It was a bit of a blow to my confidence," he says. But the next year he made a respectable $42,949 and improved to $63,486 in 1978. In 1979 he finished with $73,392. But those were the days when he was truly a club-throwing, dirt-digging maniac.

The high point in his career as a tantrum-thrower came that year in Columbus, Ga., at the aforementioned Southern Open. He remembers that by the time he reached the par-5 8th hole on the tournament's first day, he was already at "a semi-boil," three-putting everything, knocking down trees and assassinating squirrels with nasty drives. "Well, when I got up to the eighth, I whipped my tee ball into the left rough, 100 yards short of a lake with about 180 yards to clear the water," he says. " 'The hell with it,' I say, 'I'm going for it. I don't care.' So I took out a six-iron and hit it dead perfect. I love the shot, but damned if it doesn't drop in the water about 10 feet short of the far edge. Well, it all came to a serious boil about then. I said to myself, 'Well, dammit, I can get this six-iron to the water,' and I just let it fly. It was really a beauty. I didn't quite get it to the lake, but it was a very good effort. Came up 15 yards short. And it just happened that four PGA officials were right there watching."

At the end of the round, Clyde Mangum, one of the officials, said, "Craig, I got a little present for you."

"Yeah? What could that be?" said Stadler.

"Well, we got a little problem with you throwing a club on eight."

"You're kidding," said Stadler. "Did I throw a club?"

"Well, you can appeal it if you want to," said Mangum.

Stadler just dug into his pocket, laughing, and came up with the fine. It was his last serious club throw. And, not coincidentally, the last time he played the Southern Open.

Now the turbulence of youth has given way to a new serenity. The damn-all club throw has been refined into what Stadler calls Emphatic Club Placement. The subtlest variation of this technique is to place the club head near the bag and slam the shaft against the bag with the right severity to fit the seriousness of the golf club's crime. For the occasional shot that is so bad that it's funny, Stadler uses the whimsical club toss—high parabola, grip first—into the bag, like a basketball set shot. These various means of expression seem to push the Creed about as far as it will go.

Of course, Stadler has not had that many occasions to be angry this year. "Oh, it's just all confidence," he says of the spectacular improvement in his play. "My game's no different than it was six years ago when I made $2,702. Hell, I know I'm going to go out and I'm going to score well, whether I'm playing good or not. If I play bad I'm going to shoot 70, 71. If I play good, I'll shoot 64 or 65."

Going into the Masters, his stroke average of 70.45 was ninth best on the tour. His 28.50 putts per round was No. 1. He was the third-best par-breaker at .229 and the leader in birdies. "You go out with such a positive attitude," he says, "you're going to play well."

Stadler's what-the-hell attitude notwithstanding, he's a man who wants to be liked by the public and can't really understand why he isn't. "What I'd like them to say about me is this," he says. " 'They call him the Walrus, he's colorful, he gets hot, but he gets over it and is ready for the next shot. And he's playing great golf.' "

They call him the Walrus, he's colorful, he gets hot, but he gets over it and is ready for the next shot. And he's playing great golf.

Says his friend Simpson, "Funny, but the more a guy wins, the more people seem to like him."

PHOTOWhen he hits a shot he doesn't like—as here at the TPC—Stadler shows disgust. PHOTOThe paunch is the guts of Stadler's game. PHOTOOn the Stadlers' Lake Tahoe sun deck, Kevin, age 2, takes a swing at his father's game. PHOTOSue uncovered the walrus club covers.

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