Craig Stadler teed off an hour ago, yet there he is, bigger than life—bigger than you remember him—in front of the ShankMeister.com tent at the Newport Beach Country Club. This smiling Walrus is a cardboard facsimile: The real Stadler is feeling rather less cheerful on this overcast day. He is out on the course, driving the ball well enough but three-putting right and left and generally playing himself out of contention on the first day of the Toshiba Classic, a popular stop on the Champions tour.
Now in its third year, ShankMeister hopes to become a kind of eBay for golfers. Never mind that Stadler grew up in ritzy La Jolla, Calif., or that his hobbies have included hunting in Argentina and collecting fine wines. With his gruff charm and offensive lineman’s build, the Walrus has long had a blue-collar, Walmart appeal. It makes sense that his bejowled mug would be the face of a website catering to bargain-hunting golf junkies. While the golfing masses may not remember all 13 of his PGA Tour victories, they know those triumphs include a major, clinched on the first playoff hole at Augusta National Golf Club 30 years ago.
Whom did he beat in that playoff? “I go to golf shows all over the country, and that’s a trivia question we ask,” says ShankMeister’s Drew Hester. “Nobody ever knows the answer.”
Dan Pohl was simply happy to be invited to the 1982 Masters. He was only a few years removed from earning his PGA Tour card, at the 1979 spring Q school; from qualifying on Mondays and living out of his van. The first time he made a cut, he recalls, he finished outside the top 70 and was handed a check for $18. Damn straight he cashed it.
Pohl could always drive the ball a mile. At the 1976 NCAA tournament Jay Haas of Wake Forest was putting on the 407-yard 12th hole at the University of New Mexico Championship course when he began backpedaling, amazed. A wind-aided drive had rolled a few feet past the cup. The ball belonged to Pohl, a junior at Arizona.
“I started 5, 4, 2,” says Pohl, “and that was my game.” A three-sport star at Mount Pleasant (Mich.) High, he came to golf relatively late. In those early years he was a beast off the tee whose game deteriorated the closer he got to the cup. So he slaved away on his short game and got better. Pohl got into the ’82 Masters by virtue of his third-place finish at the previous year’s PGA Championship. Of course he had watched the Masters on TV, and he had a healthy respect for it. “But I didn’t get the tingling sensation that some of the Southern guys got when they talked about Augusta,” he says. Rather than walk around like a worshipper in a cathedral, he yukked it up during practice rounds with fellow Maxfli golfers Hubert Green, John Mahaffey and Fuzzy Zoeller, who had won a green jacket three years earlier in his first trip to Augusta. “We had a lot of laughs, even as I was learning the course,” says Pohl.
Most of what he learned was rendered moot by the storms that lashed Augusta on Thursday and Friday. It was the coldest, wettest, foulest Masters in memory. How miserable was it? On Thursday, Jack Nicklaus, with a three-under-par 69, was the only player in the 76-man field to break par. “Everybody was in survival mode,” says Pohl, who opened 75–75. Though he was only six shots back of Stadler and just 21 players stood between him and the lead, Pohl had dramatically scaled back his expectations. But his parents, Howard and Deloris, had made the trip from Mount Pleasant, as had one of his four siblings, Larry, and Dan’s wife, Mitzi. (They divorced in 2010). Dan still hoped to do something special for his people. Playing euchre on Friday night in the family’s rented house outside town, he was reminded that he could still make a nice check, could still play well enough to get an exemption into the following year’s event.
The forecast calls for rain, which could be why there are more trees than people out for the first round of the Toshiba. Stadler, Jim Gallagher Jr. and Peter Senior are being followed by a gallery of perhaps a dozen.
While Gallagher and Senior lay up with their second shots on the par-5 3rd hole, Stadler laces a three-wood onto the green, a spectacular shot. He makes birdie but gives the stroke back on the next hole. His tee shot at the par-3 settles in the fringe beyond the green. After chipping poorly, he tosses his club in the air, then spikes it like a volleyball player. Walking to the next tee, he makes a paddle of his right hand and smacks his ball into a lake.
Making his way to the clubhouse after a three-over 74, Stadler seems less angry than resigned. “That’s about what I shoot these days,” he says. “I play like I feel.”
How do you feel?
“S-----,” he says. But at least he cracks a smile. He had a hip replaced two years ago. “The hip’s fine,” he reports. “I’ve got a bulging L4, and it’s whacking my sciatica. My right foot is going numb right now. Actually the left one is too. It’s lovely.”
He’s struggling, admits his longtime caddie, Jeff Dolf. “I don’t know if he expects a whole lot [from himself] right now, and that’s part of the problem,” Dolf says. “He needs new shafts in his irons, but he won’t listen to me. He’s too stubborn.” Two days later Stadler will shoot an 83, making him nostalgic for that 74.
Stadler’s crankiness has rubbed off on Dolf, who has some parting words for a reporter. “Get my name right if you use it,” he says. “The last time someone quoted me they had me in there as Jack Dolf. Try saying that fast, three times in a row.” While the caddies around him crack up, Dolf is not amused.
On the patio outside the clubhouse the Walrus warms up while talking about his days playing mini-tours in the mid-1970s. Whereas Pohl piloted that van to Monday qualifiers, Stadler crisscrossed the country in an orange Camaro, making $2,702 in 1976, his first year on the Tour. By ’82 he had arrived. He opened the season with a victory at the Tucson Open, and also took second-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes into that year’s Masters. He was on fire.
Those flames were extinguished by Thursday’s Old Testament rains. Stadler opened with a 75–“a horrible start”—but rebounded with a Friday 69. “I don’t remember what I shot on Saturday,” he declares. (It was a masterly 67.) Going into the final round, he led by three over Seve Ballesteros and Jerry Pate, with Raymond Floyd and Tom Weiskopf another stroke back. Hardly anyone was talking about Pohl, even though he’d had a pretty fair Saturday himself.
Pohl spent moving day with Tom Watson, the defending champ—“a great pairing for me, ’cause we both play fast, we both played aggressive.”
There was a fearlessness to Pohl’s game that carried over to his sartorial decisions. Google “Dan Pohl, Oak Hill.” No less arresting than his clubhead speed and powerful impact were the slim-fit, pink bell-bottoms he rocked at the 1989 U.S. Open.
Pohl would win twice on Tour, have 70 top 10 finishes and pocket more than $3.1 million. But he began to have success only when he learned to control that aggression. Leading the 1979 Western Open by three on the final day, he got so hopped up on adrenaline that he started “driving through fairways and flying wedges over greens.” He tied for third.
He shot 37 on the front nine at Augusta on Saturday—not great—but knew enough to play it safe on 10, 11 and 12. “You always felt as if you simply wanted to get through those,” he says. “Just get your par and see what you could do with 13 and 15.”
His second shot on the par-5 13th was a long iron to within 18 feet. He made the putt for eagle. His pitching wedge on the par-4 14th flew past the hole, spun back and dropped in. Another eagle. After birdieing 15, he hit “probably my best shot of the week” at the par-3 16th—a high, cut six-iron that stopped 21⁄2 feet past the hole. Another bird. By this time the Michiganders in his gallery were getting loud. Pohl parred the last two holes, matching Stadler’s 67. By playing 13, 14, 15 and 16 in six under, Pohl set a Masters record for a four-hole stretch that still stands.
Yet none of it mattered, really, because Stadler pulled away on Sunday, making his way to the 10th tee with a six-shot lead over Ballesteros, Weiskopf, Tom Kite and the fellow who didn’t seem to belong in that illustrious company. As Stadler’s then wife, Sue, said to a friend on the course, “Isn’t it nice that Dan Pohl is playing so well?”
Indeed, during a bogey-free round Pohl had five more birdies on his way to another 67. Weiskopf blew up with two triples. Ballesteros and Kite failed to charge. Playing three groups behind him, Pohl recalls, “Stads started dripping oil.”
Through 11 holes the Walrus was four up. When he made his third bogey in five holes at the 16th, his lead had dwindled to one over Pohl, who was in the clubhouse at four under.
Pohl still couldn’t quite convince himself he might win this thing. After parring 17, the Walrus needed only a par at the final hole. But as Dan Jenkins wrote in that week’s SI, his 30-foot downhill putt “was uglier than his golf bag back in 1979 when it advertised Taylor’s Prime Steaks.” Stadler’s six-footer for par “didn’t even scare the cup.”
Sitting at the edge of the practice green with his Michigan crew, Pohl heard a loud, mournful OOOoooooh, from the direction of the 18th green. He reached for his golf glove.
He had been chatting with his family, doing a little putting. “Then all of a sudden,” he says, “I was over on the 10th tee for a playoff.”
Number 10, a.k.a. Camellia, then a 485-yard par-4, is historically one of the toughest holes at Augusta National. Players must hit a second shot—often from a downhill lie—into a long, narrow, elevated green. Both men hit driver, six-iron. Stadler slightly chunked his second shot but got lucky: His ball went straight at the flag, stopping below the hole in the middle of the green. Pohl’s second shot settled “on a little moundy area,” he says, on the right edge of the green, 30 feet from the hole. Stadler rolled his putt to tap-in range. Thoroughly flummoxed by the mound, Pohl left himself an eight-footer, which he pulled. “I tried to jam it in and simply didn’t make it,” he says, his voice trailing off.
“Would Johnny Miller say I choked my guts out?” he asks now. “Probably. Because that’s the kind of thing he says.” Pohl would beg to differ. Choking means losing control of one’s nerves and emotions, he points out, “and that never happened to me.”
“To this day, considering the way I played Saturday and Sunday, I have no gripes,” he says. In fact Pohl’s weekend total of 134 was four shots better than anyone else’s in the field. He was one of only four players to shoot under 140 over the final two rounds. “I had nothing to be disappointed about, nothing to be demoralized about,” he adds.
After a pause, however, Pohl tells the truth: “Of course, in the same breath you think, Damn! How many times do you get a chance to win the Masters?”
That was it for Pohl. He tied for eighth a year later but never contended again in five trips to Augusta. By the late 1980s his back was in full rebellion: He needed a five-hour operation to repair damage done by a chipped vertebra. By the time he left the game in 2009, he’d had 11 surgeries.
But as he ticks off the corporate outings and course design and business ventures that have come his way since he stopped competing—“I’m not changing my spots so much as I’m adding spots to my coat”—he sounds . . . energized, vital, happy.
Three decades after the fact, Stadler is asked how winning a major—that major—changed his life. Befitting the face of ShankMeister.com he steers clear of anything that might be construed as profundity. “The phenomenal thing about it is, I can go back to play Augusta National whenever I want,” he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Sitting on the patio, he crunches some numbers in his head, then concludes that he has played the course around 150 times. At 58 he knows there will come a time when tournament officials will take away his Masters invitation. He hasn’t made the cut since 2007, has been a stranger to the top 25 since 1992. But he’ll be back again next week, teeing it up for the 36th time.
“And it’s still incredibly cool,” he says, “turning onto Magnolia Lane."