A seasoned curmudgeon at age 61, Craig Stadler isn’t one for sentimental pap. Yet even he was struck by the Disneyesque plot that played out last April, when his son Kevin qualified for his first Masters—and notched a top 10—to create a Lion King–like sense of closure.
For several years, Stadler pondered the end of his own days at Augusta, where he won his lone major in 1982. It had been a prosperous run: 37 appearances, five top-10 finishes, and the brightest highlight of a stellar, 13-win PGA Tour career. But the course grew longer, and his game grew shorter—as did his tolerance for missing the cut. When the younger Stadler earned his invitation, the elder Stadler declared the tournament his last Masters.
Not that he’s shuffled off into the sunset. Stadler has rededicated himself, working with a new swing coach and even taking up Pilates. Rest assured that in person, he still cuts a rumpled, imposing figure. (There’s a reason he’s not nicknamed the Eel or the Seal.) Golf Magazine caught up with this Walrus in winter in the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass to hear his unvarnished opinion on all things Augusta—where, it turns out, he keeps multiple green jackets for a very “fitting” reason.
This year, you’ll be a Masters viewer for the first time since 1978. Do you have a Pavlovian response to those honeyed TV spots?
You mean the piano music and the Jim Nantz thing? “Hello, friends, and welcome to the Masters.” I keep waiting for them to do that with other sports. [In hushed announcer’s voice.] “Hello, friends. Jim Nantz here, and welcome to March Madness!”
So you’re not an Augusta romantic?
Oh, I love the place. I always have, other than Thursday and Friday for the past five or six years. Last year, I had a blast watching Kevin over the weekend. He played well, and I loved every minute of it.
You and Kevin made history as the first father-and-son tandem to play in the same Masters. Was it disappointing not to get paired together?
It wasn’t, really. We played a practice round together, and we played the Par 3 [tournament]. As much as it would have been cool to play with him in the big tournament, that might have been a little much for him.
Kevin finished tied for eighth last year. Do you give yourself the credit for showing him the ropes?
[Sarcastically] Yeah, right.
Any wisdom that you did pass along?
Nah. We did a press conference before the tournament, and the press kept talking about all this relationship crap. I just didn’t want to get in his way. I said, “He’s out here trying to win a tournament, and I’m out here trying not to embarrass myself.” And that’s the way I felt about it.
There’s an embarrassment factor for you? Do you really think Masters fans care what you shoot?
Well, I have no interest in being part of anything where I shoot 81, 80.
When did Augusta start to get too difficult for you?
For five years or so, I’d been saying under my breath to friends that the first year Kevin got in was going to be my last. And it worked out perfectly, because he played really well. A couple of bogeys down the stretch on Sunday, but otherwise it was awesome to watch.
You also had some good early showings at Augusta, with a win and three top-10 finishes in your first nine starts.
A lot of it came down to putting. I always seemed to putt well there, but I don’t know why.
In 1982, the year you won, you had a three-shot lead going into Sunday. What does it feel like to sleep on the 54-hole Masters lead?
A bunch of us were right up there on Saturday, and I made three bombs in a row on 16, 17 and 18 to get into the lead. I went to the pressroom, and I probably pissed some people off. They said, “You’ve got a three-shot lead. How are you going to prepare for tomorrow?” I said, “Well, I’m going to get up, have an Easter egg hunt with the kids, have a little lunch, hit balls and play.” I think they thought I was being a smart-ass.
You weren’t being a smart-ass?
No. It’s Easter Sunday. I’m going to hide some eggs and have a hunt with the kids. What else do you do on Easter Sunday when you aren’t playing golf until 2 p.m.?
Just “playing golf”? That’s what the Sunday Masters lead felt like?
Pretty much. And I went out and shot 33 on the front nine. I had a seven-shot lead walking off the 10th green.
Is it true that at that point you started envisioning the green jacket presentation?
I don’t remember much about that front side. But I remember every spot I hit it on the back. This might sound like bull—-, but honestly it was the best 40 I ever shot. I hit a lot of quality shots.
So you didn’t lose a seven-stroke Sunday lead because pressure got to you – it was just that you didn’t score well?
When I finished on 18, they asked me if I wanted to hit balls [before the playoff]. I said, “Nah, let’s go.” So Dan Pohl and I went to the 10th. We both hit good drives, which is not the easiest shot for me, turning it right to left. I hit [the approach] about 30 feet short and two-putted for par. He left his approach on the right fringe, hit his first putt about eight feet short and then missed his par putt. It was one of those weird deals where I felt almost as bad for him as I did good for myself.
Maybe it’s not a surprise that you remember the bad shots more than the good ones.
If I have a lousy nine and shoot 46, I could tell you how. But if I shoot 31, and you asked me about it, I’d probably say, “I don’t know. I made six birdies and a bogey,” or whatever.
That tee shot on 10 brings up something we hear about Augusta – that it hurts players who like to fade the ball. Do you agree?
It’s tough on the tee shots, because most of the doglegs move left — 2, 5, 9, 10, 13, 14. The 18th is really the only hole that goes a little right. But that fading thing, that’s the Lee Trevino myth we’ve heard forever, that he didn’t play well because he couldn’t turn it over. Bull—-. He could draw the ball as well as anybody.
The story is that Augusta was too stuffy for Trevino–that he didn’t feel comfortable there.
Maybe. It’s not my place to comment.
What about you? Is Augusta a bit uptight for your Everyman sensibility?
Not at all. I love it.
Do you ever play there outside of tournament week?
For sure. I try to get there at least once a year. I’ve become good friends with four or five members, so it’s relatively easy to do. I enjoy bringing people out there, especially people who’ve never played there.
[Laughs] I mean, people who know better than to ask. Last year, I took a buddy from Argentina who’d never been out of his home country. We played with Freddie [Couples]. My buddy was shaking so badly on the first hole he couldn’t get the ball on the tee. I teed it up for him. He’s a pretty good player, maybe a 6 handicap, but Augusta can be intimidating.
Has Augusta National become too long and difficult?
They’ve only really lengthened it once, but it was significant. It went from around 6,900 yards to something like 7,550 [officially, 7,435]. Eight or ten years ago, that wasn’t too much for me, but it is now. The biggest thing is that the younger guys still hit the same clubs into the greens that we hit 30 years ago. Take a hole like 7, a par 4. They’re hitting wedges into a green that’s built for a high shot in. I can hit a good drive, and I still have 180 yards left. I’m hitting a 4-iron, so I have to be absolutely perfect or I’ll bounce into the back bunker. And anytime you miss a green at Augusta, you’re dead, as you should be.
Can an older player still win?
I don’t know what’s going on with Freddie. He plays so well during the the week and then does nothing on Sunday. Maybe he gets tired. Of the over-50 guys, I’d say [Bernhard] Langer has the best chance because he doesn’t care if he’s playing Naples or Quad Cities or Augusta. It’s a golf tournament, and he has the same mindset for all of them. He’s well-regimented. That’s the German in him. But it’s so much tougher to win these days. It used to be you teed off 60 or so players and maybe 15 had a chance to win. Now you’re teeing off 95 or so and you’ve got 65 or 70 who can win.
Do you favor expanding the field?
I liked it better when it was smaller. They’ve probably got a few too many marginal players from overseas. They want it to be a world golf event, and it is. But when it was just 60 guys, it had that magic and mystique of getting into it. I mean, only 60 people in the whole world can play! The field is slowly creeping up to be like a regular major, which is probably as it should be, but you miss that mystique.
Are today’s players better than they were in your day?
Not really. It’s harder to win, but other than the way Tiger Woods did—and Rory McIlroy at times—nobody stands out like Jack Nicklaus used to, or like Johnny Miller did for a few years.
What about the complaint that young players now seem like carbon copies of one another?
They are all pretty robotic. They look alike to me, and they seem a little boring, at least on TV. But they almost have to take that approach with the amount of money they’re playing for today.
Have you done the grumpy-old-man bit with Kevin and said, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it, you whippersnapper”?
Oh, yeah. One of the best stories was four or five years ago, when he got into Colonial as an alternate and played really well. I was watching on TV, and he missed a putt on 18—struck it beautifully, but it just melted over the cup. We talk on the phone that night, and he says, “That putt cost me 90 grand.” I said, “Really? It cost you 90 grand? That’s terrible. I feel sorry for you. Did you write them a check?”
The Walrus puts the Smallrus in his place. Who gave you that nickname, anyway?
Jerry Pate bestowed it on me at the 1975 Walker Cup at St. Andrews.
Do you like it?
It’s a little late to say I don’t.
When you take stock of your own career, where do you place yourself in the pantheon?
That’s just not something I think about.
Well, would you say you overachieved or underachieved?
Golf was never my No. 1 priority. When we had kids, in 1980 and ’82, my family was the focus. When I came back from the road, I’d hang out and screw around with the kids. I didn’t practice. I wasn’t real disciplined. Fortunately, golf came pretty easily for me. In ’82, I started the year in Tucson, and my clubs got lost on the way there. I borrowed a set for the practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, and those were the first shots I’d hit in a few months. I won by three. I could do that then. Nowadays, if I take five days off, it takes me two weeks to get it back.
Do you ever regret not having been more committed to practice or to physical fitness?
I wish we had had the [fitness] trailers back then. You had nobody to go to.
You would have pumped iron?
No, for stretching. I never lifted weights, except for 12-ounce curls.
How’s your health now?
I hurt my back last year in Hawaii. We were traveling with people who bought too much crap. There was no room for my clubs in the car, so I strapped them on top with bungee cords. I drove to the airport looking like Jed Clampett. Putting my clubs up there, something in my back went. I couldn’t walk. I feel better now. I started Pilates two months ago and…
Craig Stadler, doing Pilates? Sorry for laughing.
How life changes, eh? I feel way more flexible than ever.
You’re 61. Have you given any thought to retirement?
I was ready to retire in 2013. I played Augusta, then went to Houston, shot 77, 74, 81 and went home. I withdrew from the Senior PGA and from the Des Moines event, thinking, “Okay, time to find something else to do.” I hated playing. Then around the end of May, I figured I had to give myself one more chance. I owed it to myself. So I called Billy Harmon.
You don’t seem like a swing-guru guy.
I’d never really worked with anybody except Dick Harmon [Billy’s brother]. When he passed away, I couldn’t figure out what to do. Until I saw Billy.
Did he spot a swing flaw quickly?
That first day with him on the range, I hit some irons, feeling pretty pleased with my contact. Billy asks, “What club are you hitting?” I tell him 8-iron. He shoots the distance with a range finder: 125 yards.
Wow. That’s a 20-handicap’s 8-iron.
Billy watches me hit some balls, and he sees that my left shoulder is pointing way left, and the ball is way forward in my stance. He says, “How the hell did you get there?” I go, “Dude, I don’t know! That’s why I’m here to see you.”
Have his swing changes helped?
A few weeks later, I played [the Champion Tour’s Encompass Championship near Chicago], and I won. Has it made a difference? Yeah. Should I have gone to see him sooner? Yeah.
Now that you do Pilates and have your swing problems sorted, any chance we’ll see you play Augusta one last time?
You’ll see me playing this year—on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.
If you had been a fitness buff and worked more often with a swing instructor, do you think you’d have more than one green jacket?
I’m not sure life would have been different. I’ve let things slip, but I was in pretty good shape when I played the regular Tour.
How much have you slipped? Does that green jacket from ’82 still fit?
That’s a stupid question.
We’ll mark that down as a “No.”
In my locker there, they actually keep two or three jackets for me. Because, you know, the weight fluctuates a bit.