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MAN OF IRON

June 17, 1991
June 17, 1991

Table of Contents
June 17, 1991

Books
Perspective
Reporter-At-Large
Reminiscence
Design
Focus
On The Scene
The NBA Finals
French Open
College World Series
World Bowl
The McRaes
Thomas Hearns
Lanny Wadkins
Horse Racing
Women Sportscasters
Environment
Point After

MAN OF IRON

Wielding an appliance or a golf club, Lanny Wadkins has a hot hand heading into the U.S. Open

Except for the gold Rolex and the impeccable wrinkle-free shirt, Lanny Wadkins looks like somebody you or I might play in the next member-guest tournament. In fact, Wadkins is somebody you might play in your next member-guest, if you belong to Preston Trails Golf Club in Dallas. Can you imagine? You're standing on the first tee with the rest of the schmoes and up comes this 41-year-old, stocky, cocky, little guy with a pudgy face and maybe a little belly and more brass than you could haul around in a GMC pickup, and he introduces himself as "Lanny Wadkins." And you shake his hand and say, "Sure, and I'm Arnold Palmer." And when you ask him his handicap, he says, "Plus eight."

This is an article from the June 17, 1991 issue Original Layout

Do you know any other touring pro who plays in member-guests? Isn't that why so many people root for Lanny Wadkins, because he's just like us? Yeah, he gets hacked off after missing a putt and takes a backhand swat at the ball, just like us. In fact, he has backhanded away more money than some guys will make in a lifetime. He did it again at the Masters this year—missed a four-footer for par at the 9th hole on Friday, got fried about it, reached across the hole and tried to backhand in a one-footer and missed that. Double bogey. Lost by two shots. Hello, third-place money.

He's just like us. On the course, he always looks as if he would rather be undergoing gum surgery than playing golf, but when the round's over, Lanny's the one who asks, "What time tomorrow?" He's addicted to the game, flat out. Can you see Wadkins walking around smiling after making a double bogey? At the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic last year, he was paired with the equally marble-faced Curtis Strange on Sunday, and Curtis looked at Lanny and said, "Cripes, they're going to have to hire a third person just to smile for us."

Want to play a leisurely, get-acquainted-with-the-track practice round? Are you kidding? Lanny has a Texas death match for you, boys—$20 a hole, automatic one-down presses, double it on the back, individuals all the way around, $10 greenies, pushed. If he's playing, he's betting. It's like this: If Greg Norman is the greatest Saturday golfer ever (always the leader after three rounds, rarely after four) and Jack Nicklaus is the greatest Sunday golfer ever (always the one sticking the trophy in his trunk), then Jerry Lanston Wadkins has to be Mr. Tuesday. For Tuesday is the day when PGA Tour players play for their own money, and nobody gets a bull neck up faster than Wadkins when his own fresh simoleons are on the line.

You've never heard about Lanny's 61 at the 1984 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek? That's because it was on a Tuesday. How about his 62 at the 1973 PGA at Canterbury? His 63 at the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion? Tuesdays too. Around Tour clubhouses, those Tuesday rounds are legendary, and though they never paid a dime in official money, they paid very big in around-the-card-table money. One time, before a major in the early '70s, Wadkins and Bert Yancey fleeced Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf so badly that Palmer didn't pay until November. "Me and Bert used to beat them like tom-toms," says Wadkins, grinning a Vegas grin.

During Weiskopf's great year, 1973, the season he won six tournaments, including the British Open, Canadian Open and World Series of Golf, Wadkins was beating Tom's brains out on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Weiskopf has admitted it. If there were an unofficial money list, Wadkins would own it.

Five-hour rounds? Wadkins would walk off the course or blow up from the gizzard out if he had to play that long. He's the fastest gun in golf, which comes from trying to get in 54 holes a day with his younger brother, Bobby, as a kid back in Richmond. He played in the first group at the Masters this year and three hours or so later was sipping something cool on the veranda overlooking 18. Wadkins can walk to his ball, get himself set and hit it before you've got your glove Velcroed.

Lay up? Layups are for basketball and par 6s. Anything else and you had better be sure the pin is in the hole real tight, because Wadkins is reaching for steel and ripping cloth. If the pin were floating on a Frisbee in Lake Pontchartrain, he would go for it. Come to think of it, he would probably hit it.

He's just like us. When people ask him about the technical aspects of his swing, Wadkins looks up from his grip with that Texas-sized jaw and says, "I just whomp it." When he has a week off, he does what we would do—plays four times a week. Sometimes he concentrates so hard he gets headaches. And if there's anybody out there who hits more balls than he does, we would like to see the blisters.

When Wadkins wins big, he does what we would do: He buys a few rounds. When he won the PGA at Pebble Beach in 1977, he woke up the next morning and couldn't find his $45,000 check. He had crumpled it up and thrown it in the fireplace the night before. (Lucky for him, his aim was off and the check missed the flames.) How many golfers do you know who competed in The Superstars competition? Wadkins didn't do so well, but hell, what do you want? There was no action on it.

Wadkins had money riding on his golf swing before he even knew it. The son of a truck driver and a schoolteacher in Richmond, Lanny was so good by the time he was 14 that one of the members at the club where his father spent four years as an assistant pro took him as his partner for his outings. The member, a used-car dealer, would make small wagers and never tell Lanny. When Wadkins turned 15, the guy gave him a '55 Ford.

The line on Wadkins is that if pro golfers played for their own money instead of Shearson Lehman's or Buick's or AT&T's, they would be renaming subdivisions after him. If pro golfers competed head-to-head and eyeball-to-eyeball instead of four days against the field, Wadkins would have his own line of appliances. If pro golfers putted to a hole nine inches wide, they would be pushing him for Congress. Tee to green, few are better than Wadkins. But pro golfers don't work that way, and so Wadkins remains a kind of cult figure, the Fellini of golf, underappreciated and underacknowledged except by the purists and the players themselves.

"If I had to pick one partner for a match?" says Watson. "It'd be hard not to pick Lanny or Nicklaus."

"Of all the players I've seen," says Weiskopf, "I'd say nobody hit it consistently closer to the hole, time after time after time, no matter what the club, than Lanny and Johnny Miller."

"If Lanny Wadkins had the kind of streak Tom Watson used to have with his putter," says Wadkins's business manager, former U.S. amateur champ Vinny Giles, "there's no telling how many times he'd have won."

Despite an ungainly putting stroke, Wadkins has won 20 times on the PGA Tour (11th most among players who started their career after World War II), is fifth on the alltime money-winning list with $5,178,411, and was PGA player of the year in 1985. But nobody talks about that. Most people want to know why he hasn't won everything. One time Wadkins asked his friend Ben Hogan if he saw anything about his game that Hogan could help him with. Hogan paused a second and then said, "Well, the only thing I can see is you should be winning a whole lot more."

And he might win more if they would just put the leader in his group on Sundays. Nobody this side of Ray Floyd can stare you down like Wadkins. It's the reason no sane Ryder Cup captain would leave him off the U.S. team. When the Americans and Europeans pair off in September, it will be Wadkins's seventh Ryder Cup competition, only one short of Billy Casper's record. In fact, Wadkins, who has a 15-9-1 career record in Ryder match play, may have hit the most famous American shot in the history of the event. It was his 72-yard wedge to within the leather that saved a win for the Yanks in 1983. In '89 Wadkins dusted the best player in the world, Nick Faldo, on the last day to help the U.S. save face and a tie, although as the defending champions, the Europeans retained the trophy. This year, he figures the Americans will bring the cup back, no problem. "Oh, yeah," he says, "I think we'll win. We have a veteran team, and they have some unproven youngsters."

The depth of Wadkins's cockiness has always been exceeded by the depth of his talent. This was the kid who set out to play pro golf without a sponsor. This was the kid who finished ahead of Watson, John Mahaffey, David Graham, Steve Melnyk, Leonard Thompson and Forrest Fezler at the 1971 Tour School. This was the kid who insisted he could break Bob Murphy's rookie earnings record of $105,595 his first full year on the Tour and did it ($116,616 in 1972).

Wadkins looked like a Jack Nicklaus starter kit back then. Nicklaus won everything as an amateur. So did Wadkins, including the Western, Southern, Eastern and U.S. amateur titles. Nicklaus won in his first full year on the Tour. So did Wadkins. Nicklaus was second on the money list his second year, first the next. Wadkins was 10th, then fifth.

Wadkins was an absolute perfectionist about everything from his shots to his shirts. The man did his own ironing (still does), home and away. Sometimes, he would iron his pants in the morning, go down to the coffee shop for breakfast, go back upstairs and iron them again, and go out to play. When he would vacuum the rugs at home, he would do it as if he were painting a room, backing up in order to leave no footprints. If a footprint drove him crazy, you can imagine what a double bogey did to him.

The first time Weiskopf saw him was in 1969 at the Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, S.C. "I said to myself, 'Well, I thought Jack Nicklaus was cocky. I thought Jack Nicklaus was arrogant. He couldn't carry Lanny Wadkins's jockstrap.' ...Arrogance? He's the epitome of arrogance. I love him. He exudes arrogance. Just the way he walks around, just the way he cocks his head. That demeanor he has on the golf course. But you've got to have that."

But the problem with arrogance, with perfection, is that when you're not perfect, you have to punish yourself. Wadkins would get frustrated, lose interest in tournaments, lose his composure, back-hand putts. He once told Giles, "I probably kicked away half a million dollars in my career. When I had four or five holes to go and realized there was no way to win the tournament, I'd just lose the desire."

He did not win a tournament in his third full year on the Tour. Or his fourth or fifth. It took almost a year to recover from a gallbladder operation in 1974, and he suffered wrist and back injuries during that time. He was missing so many cuts that guys would come up to him and say, "Lanny, what are you doing here? It's Saturday." Wadkins had something of the look of soured milk.

The cold front finally passed in 1977 when he won the PGA and the World Series of Golf to finish third on the money list. But he staggered through a separation and divorce from his high school sweetheart, Rachel Strong, in 1978. He went on to win bankfuls of money from then on, but that PGA remains his only victory in a major as a pro. How could a guy who has won so often, and at so many levels, not win more majors?

"You gotta understand Lanny," says brother Bobby. "Until about four years ago, he didn't have the patience to win a major. He's going to want to hit a four-wood out of the rough at the U.S. Open no matter what."

Wadkins has achieved the No-Cigar Slam: two seconds in the PGA (to Floyd in 1982 and Larry Nelson in 1987), a second at the U.S. Open (to Floyd in '86), two thirds at the Masters (1990 and '91) and a fourth at the British Open (1984). Throw in the time he three-putted twice in the last five holes to lose the 1985 U.S. Open by two at Oakland Hills, and you have the centerfold of Psychology Today. Strange, an old friend, figures Wadkins has got to get rid of the backhand. "You don't do those things and win major championships," says Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion who admits he has backhanded a few. "But I don't do it when I'm near the lead."

Since Wadkins turned 40 on Dec. 5, 1989, life has begun anew; he has won $1,237,463 and two tournaments and is learning to forgive himself. He's concentrating on all 72 holes now and, as a result, keeping more of the cash for himself. He has won once this season (the Hawaiian Open in January) and has six other finishes in the Top 10 to rank second in money won with $564,030 to Corey Pavin's $721,898. "Turning 40 slapped me in the face," Wadkins says. "I realized I haven't got forever."

Whether this week's U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club outside Minneapolis has Wadkins's name on it depends on whether or not Lanny and his putter are speaking to each other. He consistently has been one of the best drivers on the Tour, and the Open begs for that. He has played Hazeltine only once, on National Golf Day in 1980, when he shot 70 and beat Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller and Graham.

You just know that anybody who wants to win a member-guest as bad as Wadkins does must be positively aching for an Open win. "At this point in my career, you throw me a Masters and an Open, that's something I can tell my grandkids about," he says.

Ah, yes, grandkids. Wadkins eventually might have more of them than he at one time had thought possible. His daughter from his first marriage, Jessica, is 17 now. After his divorce, Lanny married a former TCU homecoming queen, Peni Atwood, and after seven years of trying—not to mention two major operations and two procedures similar to in vitro that Peni went through—they finally had a baby.

Travis is three now, and Wadkins loves that boy even more than his wedge. "This is our miracle kid," he says with Travis in his arms. "He teaches you what's really important."

Wait a minute. Maybe Lanny Wadkins has won a major lately.

PHOTODOUG MILNERTravis sometimes helps his dad get the wrinkles out, not that the fastidious Lanny requires such assistance.PHOTOAL SATTERWHITEWadkins's only major win came in the '77 PGA, and he promptly tossed the check.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONA clutch shot by Wadkins (second from right, with Floyd, Strange and Nicklaus) saved the 1983 Ryder Cup.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWadkins couldn't get a handle on his putter at the Masters.