The PGA's $7.5 million road show ended its 11-month tour last week amid the absurd splendor of Walt Disney World, a monument to Mickey Mouse in a swamp near Orlando, Fla. Jack Nicklaus, the star, ended the year the way he began it, winning. The $30,000 gave him $320,542 for 1972, and made him the first golfer to top $300,000. Arnold Palmer, that former leading man, missed the 36-hole cut, thus winding up what in many ways was his worst year since he turned pro in 1954, failing to win or share a title. And Lanny Wadkins, a 23-year-old rookie and Wake Forest dropout who has the look about him of a suntanned chipmunk, finished the season as the juvenile lead, thereby living up to his own expectations and at the same time making believers of a lot of early skeptics.
Wadkins, you see, had startled his elders on the pro tour last year by declaring, impertinently as they saw it, that he would not be satisfied with less than one tournament win and $100,000 in first-year earnings. Now Lanny is satisfied. He won $116,616, more than any rookie ever, and in October he yanked the Sahara tournament in Las Vegas right out of the overlapping and interlocking grips of no less than Palmer and Nicklaus. Earlier in the year he finished second two weeks running, at the Hope and Phoenix, losing the latter in a playoff. Those who used to call him a cocky kid now refer to him as a confident young man.
"It's funny about goals," said Wadkins as he contemplated the luxury of a month at home in North Carolina. "It's hard to sit down and formulate them, but once you begin playing they eventually present themselves. Like this summer, sometime in July, I had already won around $60,000 and I realized I could probably break Bob Murphy's rookie money record [$105,595 in 1968]. That gave me something to shoot at, so, coming into the Sahara when I had to have a win to break that record, I got it."
Money, in the amounts that Wadkins has won it, will buy a lot of respect on the pro tour, respect for the skill and nerve that it takes to get it. Unlike many other athletes, a pro golfer earns his pay stroke by stroke through an arduous schedule that has no off-season. There are no salaries and no bonuses, and a new player starts his first tournament knowing that his expenses are going to be about $25,000 and that he may not earn a dime. Though most of them begin touring with the backing of a sponsor who guarantees expenses in return for a percentage, often half, of winnings, the young player looks forward to the day he will have returned the backer's investment with reasonable interest and is free to keep the produce of his labor. His worst fear is of earning so little during the term of his agreement that the backer will drop him before he has a chance to prove himself.
Lanny Wadkins began life as a pro several thousand dollars in debt as the result of a successful amateur career. With almost no money in the bank and the assurance of loans from friends if things got really bleak, he chose to go out on his own, without sponsors, and, as has happened many times since, his confidence in his ability paid off. By the end of the Doral tournament in March he had won $44,277 and his financial worries were over.
The gamble was characteristic. Johnny Miller, who himself has been coming on steadily since turning pro in 1969 and who nearly broke $100,000 for the first time this year, says, "Lanny is the boldest player I've ever seen, probably a lot like Palmer used to be. People say he's cocky, but he has reason to be. He hits more good shots than most people." Caddie Leonard Thomas, also known as Fat Jack, who has been watching the new ones for 12 years while carrying for the likes of Sam Snead, says, "He's good. But when he starts hooking is when he starts playing bad. He's got a lot of nerve, though."
"Nerve. That's what keeps coming up about Lanny," says Dave Marr. "I think it's probably premature to say he's the best ball striker around, as some people have, but there's no doubt he's good. He's criticized for his grip and his swing, but there must be something right about them. They work under pressure."
The Wadkins swing is anything but pretty, and he admits that he doesn't fully understand it. "I was taught the basics and then just told to whomp it," he once said. "I haven't sought any advice this year. I was playing well enough that I didn't want to mess around with anything. But you can learn a lot by just watching. I watch the good ball strikers—Nicklaus, Weiskopf, Knudson, Aaron, Snead, Heard—to be aware of the things they all do well: takeaway, shoulder turn, leg action. Putting is the weakest part of my game and I'm going to have to work on that."
Steve Melnyk was U.S. Amateur champion in 1969, the year before Wadkins, and has played with him as both an amateur and a pro. Melnyk says, "It's not that he's a bad putter. His putting is just overshadowed by his hitting. He doesn't have to be a great putter because he hits it so well."
Wadkins has already taken the first step toward putting excellence. He has learned to whistle on the greens. "Just now and then," he says. "Sometimes it relaxes you a little. It's good to be easygoing and carefree. I guess I've learned that from playing practice rounds with Jerry Heard." Besides practice rounds, Heard and Wadkins have shared this year a rented house at the Kaiser International in Napa, Calif. and a victory in the CBS Golf Classic filmed early in the fall. Heard is a big, friendly Californian whose own rookie year, 1969, was nothing to write home to Visalia about. He was 129th on the money list. By 1970, though, he was exempt from qualifying and by '71 had won a tournament. This year he won two tournaments and $136,897, trailing only Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, George Archer and Grier Jones.