HEAVY DUTY WHEN RIVIERA GOT ROUGH, IT FIGURED THAT A VETERAN LIKE CRAIG STADLER WAS ABLE TO HANG TOUGH

March 04, 1996

America's capital of the short attention span, Los Angeles, held
a rich revival last week featuring two shaggy, wet and
underappreciated originals. One is a 69-year-old golf shrine in
the epicenter of the Southern California ethos. Engulfed in
eucalyptus, it lies in a canyon where old Hollywood cavorted,
where Ben Hogan established his alley and where golf's
aestheticians long have gathered to revel in a masterpiece of
design and playability. The other is one of the game's genuine
characters, a former Masters champion whose beefy profile,
combined with an inclination for all-world emoting, distracted
the public's attention from his talent as a shotmaker and a
competitor.

Both of them in recent years had lost their auras and been
dismissed as passe. But over a damp and cool week that closed
out the West Coast swing of the PGA Tour, Riviera Country Club
and Craig Stadler took a meeting together at the Nissan Open and
restored their good names.

The 42-year-old Stadler, a former USC Trojan, was very much in
his element. Employing a well-established talent for hitting
solid shots, the strength to escape effortlessly from rough and
the emotional control of a former firebrand who has learned the
hard way, Stadler, who began the final day four strokes behind
leader Neal Lancaster, exploded with a front-nine 30 to propel
himself out of the pack. Then, over a final stretch in which the
conditions and numbers were reminiscent of a major championship,
the Walrus survived back-to-back bogeys and a flinchy putting
stroke to amass a good-old-days total of six-under 278 and win
by one over Mark Brooks, Fred Couples, Scott Simpson and Mark
Wiebe.

It was a week of kismet for Stadler. Last Thursday, only minutes
before his tee time, he discovered that his putter had been
lifted, and he was forced to use what he described as a "goofy
looking" model that someone had left for him to try. Stadler
kept it in the lineup all week and missed very few of the short
putts that have been his nemeses in recent years. And down the
stretch on Sunday, when at one point on the back nine no fewer
than seven golfers trailed him by two strokes, Stadler found
that when he backed up with two bogeys, everyone backed up with
him.

His most persistent pursuer, Simpson, lost a share of the lead
when he bunkered his tee shot on the par-3 16th and bogeyed. Tom
Lehman had a chance to tie when he bombed two woods to reach the
578-yard 17th, but then he three-putted from 60 feet. Brooks had
a run of eight birdies and needed only to par the 9th (his last
hole) to tie. But he missed the six-foot par putt for the 63 he
needed. Actually, Couples was the closest to catching Stadler.
After leaving short a 10-footer for birdie on the 71st hole, he
came within a few dimples of holing out his nine-iron shot from
150 yards before a huge throng on the 72nd.

When it was over the normally offhanded Stadler, looking like
Grizzly Adams after an all-nighter, allowed that his 12th career
victory, coming before his parents and close friends on familiar
turf, was special. "Ten years ago I said the two tournaments I'd
like to win were San Diego and L.A.," said Stadler, who won in
his hometown of San Diego in 1994. "So both of those dreams came
true. I really love Riviera. It's much more enjoyable to play
when six under par wins instead of 20 under. It played the way
it should play."

In addition Riviera underwent the kind of instant image
rehabilitation that its most infamous member, O.J. Simpson, can
only dream about. After hitting bottom last August, when it
hosted the PGA Championship and was vigorously criticized by
players for its raggedy greens, Riviera emerged from the Nissan
being praised as the kind of traditional course that can make a
weekly pro event special.

Once universally revered, Riviera ran into trouble three years
ago when it decided to rebuild its greens in time for the 1995
PGA. One of the course's chief admirers, Ben Crenshaw, was
brought in to head the project, but problems arose when the club
decided to sod rather than seed the putting surfaces. The new
sod never developed a strong root structure, and by last August
the greens were a disaster. Worse, Riviera was embarrassed by a
PGA-winning score of 17-under 267, which tied the record for
lowest total in a major.

Since then, consultants had been called in and a greenkeeper had
resigned, but Riviera's reputation had remained tainted. Tour
players were warned that the greens would probably be
substandard for the Nissan, and there was even speculation that
Riviera might lose the tournament entirely. In fact, when the
U.S. Senior Open is held there in 1998, the Nissan probably will
be moved to Valencia Country Club, about 40 miles to the north.

"It's funny, but Riviera is going through what a lot of players
go through with their games," said Peter Jacobsen earlier in the
week. "You get to a certain level and then you want to change
everything in order to improve. Then you wish you had everything
back the way it used to be."

Yet at the Nissan the buzz was about how the course resembled
the Riviera of old. First, after hearing so many doomsday
assessments of the greens, the players were pleasantly surprised
to find them significantly better than they had been for the
PGA. Second, the rough--pathetic wisps last summer--grew beyond
expectations for the Nissan. The thick veld was scheduled for a
final cut early last week, but when heavy rains drenched the
course on Wednesday, mowers were not allowed in to cut the
killer kikuyu grass down to size. It grew to four inches, higher
than anyone could remember at Riviera, certainly deeper than it
was during the 1983 PGA and probably more severe than in 1948,
when Hogan won the U.S. Open with a 276. As the tournament began
last week, the course played like a hairy beast, its
35-yard-wide fairways framed by the tangly overgrowth and the
wind swirling among the eucalyptus. "Riviera's back," said
Lehman. "That's major championship rough."

Under such conditions it was a week for veterans. While the
Tour's two most successful young players, Phil Mickelson and Jim
Furyk, both 25, missed the cut, Lanny Wadkins, who set the
tournament record at Riviera with a 264 while winning in 1985,
relished seeing his game come around on one of his favorite
tracks. He joked about the effort required to climb from
Riviera's 18th green to the clubhouse. "I used to not like that
hill," said Wadkins, who tied for sixth, his best finish since
1993. "Now I think it's a pain in the butt."

Stadler was certainly in tune with the program, eagling his
first hole of the week, the 501-yard, par-5 1st, and going on to
a 67 that tied him for the lead. A stroke behind was Scott
Simpson, Stadler's former roommate and teammate at USC. Simpson
retold all the old stories about their two years living together
in a rundown house that Stadler had equipped with $300 worth of
furniture destined for the dump. "We had to flea bomb the place
after we furnished it," said Simpson, who remembered that the
entertainment included microwaving cockroaches and hitting
nine-iron shots through open windows. "Craig was totally
committed to having a good time," said Simpson. "He didn't worry
about anything. It was like he knew he was going to be a good
Tour player." Said Stadler of Simpson, who became a born-again
Christian after college, "Scott was a maniac. He has changed
dramatically, let's just say that."

Simpson seems to stay in touch with his former self through his
friendship with actor Bill Murray, who showed up last Saturday
to root for Simpson with his unique brand of mock harassment.
"What is your problem?" said Murray at one point. "I can't do it
all myself. You've got to make some birdies." On Sunday, Simpson
was involved in another potentially unsettling exchange. Playing
two groups behind Stadler and trailing by two going to the 14th
tee, his nine-year-old son, Sean, blithely blurted out, "Well,
it looks like Craig is going to win." Half-shocked but amused,
Simpson kept his fatherly cool. "It sure does, Sean. But you
never know."

Certainly Stadler didn't. After running the table on the front
nine, he left short a series of makable putts on the back. "I'm
a marginal putter," he said. "I was as good as anyone in the
early '80s, but I just don't have a whole lot of confidence."

He didn't inspire any with bogeys on the par-4 15th, where he
pulled a drive into the rough, or on the 16th, where he hit a
pure six-iron that fell short into a bunker and then missed a
six-footer for par. But on a shotmaker's course it was Stadler's
ball-striking ability that proved Sean Simpson right. On the
447-yard 18th, knowing he led by only one shot, Stadler hit a
wonderful power fade into the heart of the fairway and followed
with a solid eight-iron from 166 yards to within 10 feet. "I'm
really proud of that," he would say after the round.

Stadler, who went without a victory on the Tour between 1984 and
'91, has now won four times in the last five seasons. "It's so
much fun to win," he said. "It's all I play for. I love the
competition."

Stadler will attempt to carry the momentum gained from his
revival to Augusta, where he won in 1982. Until then he can take
extra satisfaction in the fact that his latest victory coincided
with the revival of Riviera.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISINStadler had the power to cut through the kikuyu grass.[Craig Stadler]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Lehman made a strong pitch for first, but his short game let him down again. [Tom Lehman] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Wiebe saw his last opportunity to catch Stadler slide away on the final hole. [Mark Wiebe]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)