In the basement of Craig Stadler's house, a sort of subterranean bunker carved into the side of a mountain on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, there is on the wall near the bar a framed copy of David Forgan's The Golfer's Creed, the manifesto familiar to golfers everywhere. "...[Golf] is a contest, a duel, or a melee," part of it goes, "calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control. It is a test of temper, a trial of honour, a revealer of character. It affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman...."
Stadler sees the passage frequently enough and knows the philosophy well, even if he has never bothered to memorize Forgan's prose. But he's no student of golf. He has barely had a lesson in his life and couldn't care less about theory. He once watched his swing on videotape, pronounced it "ugly," and has never looked at it again. He is just a player, a good old boy who likes to drink beer and margaritas, eat a big steak and laugh all night.
And whether he follows The Golfer's Creed to its last sanctimonious letter is a matter of debate, depending on whom you talk to. He has been playing the game—to the exclusion of almost everything else—and getting better and better at it for 22 of his 28 years. No one disputes the fact that he is a hard thinker about the game, a prodigious hitter, a gutsy trouble shooter, a clever soft-touch artist on and around the greens. He is simply one terrific player.
The numbers spoke for themselves even before Stadler won the Masters on Sunday. His earnings have increased steadily in each of his first six years on the tour—from $2,702 and 196th on the money list as a rookie in 1976 to $218,829 and eighth, for the second year in a row, in 1981. After four months and 12 tournaments this year, Stadler has two victories and a second, fourth, fifth and sixth and leads the money list with $211,557. There are those who feel he'd be even farther ahead of the pack if his legendary temper hadn't gotten the better of him at the Crosby, the Doral Open, the Bay Hill Classic and the TPC, any or all of which tournaments he could have won. So how does Stadler feel about all of this?
"Perfect," he said one beautiful blue and white afternoon during a quick break from the tour at Lake Tahoe a few weeks ago. He was beaming a jolly smile from his round, ruddy, mustachioed face, and one huge hand was wrapped around a cold can of beer that was resting on a belly that quivered and shook like a bowl full of jelly. He was every inch and every pound—220 of them, or thereabouts—the Walrus. The happy Walrus. All over Stadler's house there are walrus carvings and walrus pictures. His woods are covered by walrus heads, in the form of converted hand puppets found by Sue Stadler, Craig's wife of three years, during a tour stop in Houston. Sue, who is often mistaken for LPGA star Nancy Lopez-Melton, spends a fair amount of time on golf courses telling folks who have a different impression that her husband is a sweet and sensitive guy. "Once at Greensboro some guy was giving Craig a hard time, and I think he thought I thought he was cute," she says. "Finally I said to him, 'Sir, my husband is not an S.O.B.' and walked away. And the guy's friends really gave it to him for acting like such a jerk in front of Craig Stadler's wife."
"Perfect," says Stadler. "Just perfect." He's a man with a perfect nickname, a perfect wife, a perfect 2-year-old son named Kevin, a perfect job and, soon, a perfect new house in Nevada. "Perfect" is the word Stadler uses to describe just about everything that is not bad enough to throw a golf club at. Which, nowadays, is almost everything, especially his golf game.
The thing is, Stadler may be one of the most perfect things to happen to the golf tour since Lee Trevino, even if the golf tour and some of its more staid devotees are a little slow to pick up on this. The problem—"their problem," says Stadler—is his image. Sure, Stadler gets mad when he messes up, which makes him about as unique on the tour as blond hair. He has been known to throw a club or two, but not once—nothing serious, anyway—since his world-class toss at the Southern Open in 1979. He mutters a naughty word in anger now and again, but only at himself and with nowhere near the frequency of dozens of other tour players, including some of America's favorites. True, his caddie once walked off the golf course in disgust with Stadler right in the middle of a British Amateur, but that happened in 1975. All his caddies since have liked him. And guess what? So do the other players, as if that should count for anything. He has yet to make it with the public and the press. "What separates Craig from the other players," says one veteran observer of the game, "is that he's sloppy. He's a sloppy man in a clean sport."
All right, so he carries a few extra pounds, and in past years he didn't always tuck in his shirt. He does now. He even dresses in coordinates. So what if he won the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1980 while wearing a wild and woolly beard? He won, didn't he? At least he's different from the others.
He's the easiest pro to identify on the course, either from a distance or close up—which is no insignificant distinction because the PGA does not require its look-alike players to wear numbers on their shirts. He is neither beach-boy blond nor matinee-idol handsome, nor is he any other kind of tall and tan and young and lovely. That clearly sets him apart from your Beanses and Burnses, Crenshaws and Clampetts, narrowing down the field considerably. And he's not one of your wiry, hard-cut bespectacled types like Hale Irwin. And, except for Saturdays and Sundays, when he is almost always playing near the lead, he hardly ever moves along behind massive galleries, so you know you can't be watching a Nicklaus or a Palmer or a Trevino or a Watson.
Even from 300 yards, you can pick out Stadler, arms angled out over gut like the eaves of an A-frame as he gets ready to swing or the Walrus waddle as he comes up a fairway. In a word—Stadler's word—he's fat. But he's a good kind of fat—the I'm-fat-because-that's-the-way-I-am-and-I'm-happy kind of fat. He slimmed himself down once, losing 35 pounds in one month, mostly for the sake of his appearance. "I felt good," he says. "But I didn't feel comfortable. Especially putting. My arms kept trying to float away." So he put most of the weight back on. What the hell. "If people don't like me personally it's only because they don't know me," he says. "I'm not a bad guy, really. I just get mad at myself when I don't play as well as I know I can. Where's the crime in that? I hit a lousy shot, I'm going to get mad."