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 shot-maker and a competitor.
Both of them in recent years had lost their auras and been dismissed as pass�. 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."