The Good Life

The Walrus Keeps on Winning

Craig Stadler has found new wealth and happiness on the Champions Tour, where he won five times and topped the money list in 2004
| By Jeff Williams | From Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005
The Walrus Keeps on Winning

Peter Jacobsen, the PGA Tour pro, would like you to know one thing about his fellow tour cohort, Craig Stadler. Yes, he walks funny. Yes, he has a waistline that exceeds the shaft length of his clubs. Yes, his droopy mustache and jowly face unquestionably have earned him one of the finest nicknames in sports: The Walrus . But Jacobsen, who has played against Stadler for more than 30 years, wants you to know that The Walrus isn't just a cartoon character, a bowler who mistakenly wandered onto the driving range, a beer-truck driver with a serviceable caddyshack swing. "I've made fun of him for years, in a very endearing way," says Jacobsen. "But sometimes I think a way a person looks or acts can sort of block out how good they are. Make no mistake about it: Craig Stadler is a hell of a player. You've seen it this [past] year. He can flat-out play the game."

For the better part of three decades, Craig Stadler has stood out on the PGA Tour. With his beachmaster visage and everyman swing, with a temperament worn on both sleeves, Stadler has worked his way into the hearts of everyone who thinks that golf is only for the tall and thin, for the flat bellies and the fashion plates, for those stoic and serene. We love Craig Stadler, as Jacobsen does, because he defies a certain sense of logic about the game. A Walrus could be a football lineman, a baseball catcher, maybe a rugby forward. But a golfer? Stadler has given us proof, not to mention a warming of the soul.

"I am the Walrus, goo goo g'joob."

The 2004 season was a watershed year for Stadler, at least from a Champions Tour perspective. He won five times in the year he turned 51, including three straight near the end of the season and earned the Tour's Player of the Year award. He banked more than $2.3 million. He bought a share of a private jet. But there are other things you should also know about Stadler. His well-roundedness exceeds his waistline. He loves fine red wine and has begun filling up the new wine cellar in his new house outside of Denver. He loves to travel and has played golf all over the world. He loves to go bird hunting, especially in Argentina where he has developed close friendships from playing in the Argentine Open for more than a decade. He's gone hunting on safari in Africa, and ridden horses into remote western canyons in search of elk and mule deer. As Jacobsen says, don't make assumptions based on a stereotype; don't assume Craig Stadler is a beer-and-a-shot guy (though he does like that occasional beer).

"This has been a great season, a really comfortable one," says Stadler, sitting on a bench in the temporary clubhouse of the Sonoma Golf Club in California. It's the end of the 2004 Champions Tour season and Stadler is playing in the Charles Schwab Championship, a tournament for the top 30 money winners. Though he wouldn't win this event, he would finish the season as the tour's No. 1 money winner, a fact that sends a shiver of astonishment through him.

"You know, I was thinking the other day how, in the 16 months I've been playing on the Champions Tour, I've won 45 percent of the money I won playing on the PGA Tour for more than 20 years. I mean, think about that—it's nuts. I made a good living playing the PGA Tour, though nothing really outstanding except for 1982 [when he won the Masters and three other tournaments]. I had a wife and two kids and they lived well, but having your own airplane was out of the question. I mean, that was for Arnie [Palmer] and Jack [Nicklaus]. Now I've got a share of a small plane, come and go as I want to, can get back home to Denver Sunday after a tournament, spend an extra day there. That's pretty damn neat."

He says it with a wry chuckle and a knowing grin. In what other sport could you turn 50 and earn more money than when you were 49? "It boggles the mind," says Stadler, his cheeks bouncing with an inner delight.

This, too, you should know about Craig Stadler. For years you have seen him play golf with what seems to be a disdain for the game. Ugly frowns after missed putts, clubheads buried in the ground after missed shots, a few choice oaths uttered in complete frustration with himself. That is Craig Stadler, the golfer. Craig Stadler the person, well, that's a different sort of Walrus.

"He's a pretty easygoing guy," says Jacobsen. "A lot of people think he's uptight, but when you know him he's pretty easygoing. Whether it's going out to dinner or going to a hockey game, he's easygoing, calm. He doesn't throw his food. He's fun.

"I used to run this tournament back home in Portland [Oregon], the Fred Meyer Challenge," Jacobsen continues. "Stads was playing with Payne Stewart and we knew that Payne was going to wear his knickers and shirt from the San Diego Chargers. We ordered another [larger] pair for Craig and asked him if he would wear them. He said, 'Ah, what the hell.' So here is Payne and Craig wearing matching hat, shirt and knickers walking down the fairway. It was absolutely priceless and not only did the fans get a kick out of it, so did Craig. Priceless."

Stadler's testiness during tournament play is, according to Jacobsen, nothing but basic honesty about his feelings and his ability to let them out and get rid of them, so he doesn't leave the course with a day's worth of frustration tucked inside his belt line. "People can identify with him because he's like the everyday guy," says Jacobsen. "He gets mad, he gets pissed off and he lets people know. He's not a dial tone. He doesn't keep his emotions in check. And he just looks like the average guy who's going to take his kids to the state fair in shorts, tennis shoes and black socks and eat corn dogs and hash browns."

Jacobsen remembers when he first saw Stadler in the early '70s during a college competition. Stadler played for the University of Southern California, Jacobsen for the University of Oregon. "He had on a pair of plaid pants and a striped shirt and hair down to his shoulders," says Jacobsen. "He tucked the hair behind his ears before every swing. He hit it farther than everybody, straighter than everybody. The swing he has today is a lot like the swing he had back then as a Trojan. You know what, he was an unbelievably good chipper of the ball back then, and he still is today. It might seem strange, but that's what I think of most when I think about his game. What a good chipper he is. When I think about him as a person, it's always with a smile."

What's not to smile about these days? Stadler is still going to spank his putter when he misses a putt, still going to slap that iron against the ground for a poor approach or rap a tee marker with his driver when he doesn't hit the fairway, but that's just who he is as a golfer. There is also immense joy in winning, something that's coming with greater frequency now that he's past 50. He turned the magic number in June of 2003 and became the first Champions Tour player to win on the regular tour when he took the B.C. Open title later in the summer, shooting a 63 in the final round. He also won three times on the Champions Tour that rookie season. With eight wins through a season and a half as a senior, Stadler is reviving a career that sometimes went in fits and starts after his 1982 season when he won the Masters. He's not beating Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh or Phil Mickelson, but winning is still the ultimate goal of someone who expects to win.

"It feels darn good, I can tell you that," says Stadler. "Things weren't all that great for me the last few years on the regular tour, but I played pretty decent from time to time. Out on the regular tour you have maybe 130 players every week who could win the tournament. Here on the Champions Tour, you have maybe 20 to 25 who can win week to week. If you are fortunate enough to be one of those 20 to 25, then the wins will come along, and maybe a little more frequently than they had in the past. It's always great to win a tournament, to get the job done, then go on to the next week and see if you can do it again. I've been able to do that, and I'd say that my time out here has been a lot of fun and very gratifying. I think gratifying is the operative word."

Life inside the ropes for Stadler is not boundless frustration and limitless torture. The game does take a certain toll on a man who expects a lot from himself. His anger is self-directed, and self-contained. His wife, Sue, who speaks as directly and honestly as her husband, was sitting in the crowded old Quonset hut that served as the Masters pressroom back in 1982. Stadler was explaining how he had won the Masters, how he had survived a horrendous back nine of missed shots and bad breaks, to beat Dan Pohl on the 10th hole in the sudden-death play-off. He was explaining how he needed to vent his emotions on the course. Sue Stadler, for the few who sought her counsel on the matter, was only too candid about it. "He better leave that stuff on the course," said Sue. "If he brought it home, I'd kill him."

The Stadlers built a new home near their adopted city of Denver in 2003. There was to be a workout room in the basement, but Sue Stadler decided to move that upstairs. That freed up the space for Craig's use, and what better use than as a wine cellar, one with a capacity for more than 4,000 bottles.

Stadler is a relative newcomer to wine, a thirst and passion fueled by trips to Argentina to play golf and hunt. His Argentinean excursions began after he saw a travel brochure for a hunting destination in Argentina with the sky filled with doves. He called his longtime agent, Lynn Roach, and asked him if there were any golf possibilities in the country. Roach got him a spot in the Argentine Open, and for a decade Stadler played in it, making a number of good friends in the process. Some of those friends were members of a hunting club with a lodge four hours north of Buenos Aires where the air was filled with birds, and Stadler found himself in heaven. "It's built from teak with marble floors," says Stadler, fondly. "It's called Los Ombues after the national tree of Argentina, a big old shade tree that looks like an oak. It's a wonderful place."

For 11 years Stadler played in the Argentine Open and went hunting. He became the event's major proponent on the PGA Tour, getting American players to enter it. "The first year I played, there was a $20,000 purse and I made about $2,400 for second place," says Stadler, who won the tournament in 1992. "About the seventh year they moved it to the Buenos Aires Country Club where they played the World Cup. That year it had about a $670,000 purse and Mark O'Meara won it. It was a lot of fun to work with [tournament organizers] to get the players and watch it grow and be a part of it. It was kind of cool."

Along the way, Stadler drank some good Argentinean red wine, then explored wine with one of the PGA Tour's major collectors, Jeff Sluman. "I started drinking red wine in Argentina and I bet I hadn't had a red wine in 20 years up until that point," says Stadler. "Sluman and I are pretty good buddies and he gave me some ideas on what to buy. I'd start out by buying two or three bottles, then maybe a case, then maybe three cases, five cases. I don't have the cellar filled up, but I'm getting there."

Cabernet tops his favorites list. For their 25th wedding anniversary last year, his wife bought him 25 bottles of assorted Cabernets. On his trip to Sonoma for the Charles Schwab Championship, he picked up a case of 2001 Spottswood. He has a few hot boutique wines in the cellar, like Screaming Eagle and Colgan. A friend just sent him four bottles of 2000 Petrus. "I've got some pretty good stuff in there, more than I can drink," says Stadler. "But the good thing is that it's the kind of stuff that's going to keep and you can drink 15 years from now, and I certainly hope I will be drinking it 15 years from now. It's great fun, and besides, it keeps me from drinking too much Bud Light."

His passion for hunting is as much about getting away from the rest of the world as it is about making a kill. It's mostly bird hunting these days, with a deer hunt on occasion. He went on several big-game hunts in the 1980s, including a safari to Zambia where he took an enormous sable. Early in the hunt he had crossed paths with another group in which one of the hunters had taken a sable with horns that measured 42 inches. It was the animal that Stadler had come to hunt, and he was awed by the sight of it. A day later, he took one of his own, one with horns that measured more than 55 inches.

"I can remember seeing the one that this German guy had and saying that I'd pay him right there for it," says Stadler. "Then to come up with one myself, one that was damn close to a world record, it was absolutely awesome. My wife's father was a hunter and sort of got me into it. I pretty much stick to birds now. I don't do much big-game hunting. If I shoot something, fine. If I don't, fine. It's about getting out there and away from all this, the peace and quiet, but also the time spent with friends."

Count among his friends, his best friends, hockey players. He's close with many players on the Colorado Avalanche and is a season ticket holder, one saddened by the labor dispute that prevented the 2004—05 season from getting started. During the hockey All-Star break several years ago, Stadler was playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and in the gallery following him was Mike Ricci, who played for the Avalanche. "Stads is a great guy, real down-to-earth guy," says Ricci. "I guess all of us love golf and it's a big thrill for us to know someone who's a great player."

When Stadler won the B.C. Open at age 50 in 2003, the first call that came in on his cell phone was from Mike Ricci. "These guys are big-time into golf, big-time," says Stadler. "But I don't get a chance to play with them much since they don't stay around Denver in the summer. Peter Forsberg has a course over in Sweden, but I haven't been there yet. Someday. I rank hockey players right up there with golfers as a quality bunch of guys. They are completely different from golfers, but they are a great bunch of guys to be around. I've got the cell phone numbers of most of the Avalanche players."

Stadler has built his fine life around the solid core of his game. He was a two-time All-American at Southern Cal (he was raised in nearby San Diego) and the winner of the 1973 U.S. Amateur Championship. He won 13 titles on the PGA Tour and six titles in Europe and South America. And earned the endearing nickname of The Walrus along the way, one that he's quite proud of.

Stadler did try to shed some weight from his rotund shape a couple of years ago, knocking off 60 pounds. But his golf game didn't show anything for the effort, and leading the life of a dieter wasn't for him. He does eat heartily, and has recently hooked up with the steak house Smith & Wollensky for at least two television commercials. "Now that's a cool deal, carrying around that little debit card and being able to eat at those places," says Stadler. "And they have great wines, too."

During the second round of the Charles Schwab Championship, Stadler was having one of those holes, the kind that sends steam rising from his ears. He snap-hooked a shot under a tree, failed to dislodge the ball from its lie on the next swing, chopped it across the green to the edge of a water hazard on the next swing, chopped it back across the green on the next swing, and eventually got the ball in the hole for a triple bogey 8 on the par 5. The Walrus was not happy, not then, and not after he came off the course after signing his scorecard for a 73. He certainly wasn't in a mood to talk golf.

"I need a good Cabernet," said Stadler, who waddled off on his way toward the good life.

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.


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