Golf Magazine Interview: Lanny Wadkins

Thursday September 3rd, 2009
Hall of Fame golfer Lanny Wadkins.
Josh Ritchie

A few years back Lanny Wadkins was schmoozing with a small crowd that included Hubert Green and Jack Nicklaus. The World Golf Hall of Fame came up, and somebody said that both Wadkins and Green warranted induction. Nicklaus's eyes widened. "You all aren't in the Hall of Fame?" he said.

"He was flabbergasted," Wadkins recalls today. "And if Nicklaus is flabbergasted, that says a lot to me about what he thought about my game."

The Hall of Fame voters were less smitten by Wadkins, whose 21 Tour wins include the 1977 PGA and '79 Players; Wadkins also won the U.S. Amateur and 21.5 Ryder Cup points. From 1996 to 2008, Wadkins was denied admission, a drought that ended in April when 61 percent of the Hall's gatekeepers decided that it was finally his time.

The wait has been both maddening and mystifying to the 59-year-old Texan, and he isn't shy about saying so. Then again, there's not much Wadkins is reluctant to discuss, including his dismissal from CBS Sports, the scarcity of truly great players on Tour today, even a wet T-shirt contest at the Ryder Cup. Give Lanny this much: he's a Hall of Fame talker, first ballot.

After a 14-year wait — and a year before your name would have been removed from the ballot — you finally got the nod from the Hall of Fame. Do you still consider your induction an honor?
It probably would have meant more had it happened earlier, with most of my peers. I feel like I'm kind of at the end of my peer group who will be getting in. Put it this way: When [my son] Tucker was 12 he came down the stairs one morning, just after they had announced that Vijay [Singh] was going into the Hall of Fame. He said: "Dad, guess what? Vijay got into the Hall of Fame. They finally put somebody in the Hall of Fame that's won more than you have." He figured it out — at 12 years old.

But you won just one major, the 1977 PGA. Can you see how that might have hurt your case?
No. Look at the guys who have gotten in the last half dozen years. They're the guys I've grown up playing with, and if they're deserving, I'm deserving. Are we all deserving? I don't know. I'm not sure if the criteria [for induction] is tough enough. I don't think the Hall of Fame should be diluted, but at the same time, of Hubert Green and Curtis Strange and Ben Crenshaw and Larry Nelson and the rest of my peers, is there anybody there who I'd trade my record with? No. I'm pretty comfortable with what I won, especially dating back to my amateur days, when I won the U.S. Amateur. And between my Ryder Cups and World Amateurs and Walker Cups, I've probably represented the United States more than anybody who's ever played. Am I comfortable in that respect? Yes. It means a lot more to me now because of my boys [Travis, 22, and Tucker, 17]. I think it will be a big, big deal for them for Dad to be in. But it's lost a little bit of its luster for me.

In 1972, your rookie season, you told Sports Illustrated: 'To be classified as a great player, when your career's over you have to have won five or six major championships. I like to think I can do that, maybe 10 or so.' Do you still feel that's the benchmark of a great player?
That's what I'm saying about the Hall of Fame's [standards]. Crenshaw's got two Masters, [Tom] Kite's got one Open, Hubert's got two [majors], Curtis has two Opens — and they're all in. I've got a U.S. Amateur, a PGA and a Players, and I've got more wins than any of those guys. I've got more Ryder Cups. I've got more Walker Cups. Would I be disappointed if I wasn't in and all those guys weren't in? Not at all.

Did your putting prevent you from winning more majors?
I was never a bad putter. I was just never a really good one. I had streaks. You can't shoot some of the numbers I shot and not make putts, but I didn't make putts consistently. I don't think there's any question that putting kept me from winning a couple of Opens and maybe a Masters. I wish I could do some things over. I was also having fun doing it. I loved to play the money games and sometimes I probably played them when I should have been spending more time putting and chipping — especially when I was home. Back in the '80s, when I'd take two weeks off Tour, I'd go home and play four or five money games a week at Preston Trail [in Dallas]. Hell, the Tour was easy compared to those matches.

Did playing for your own money motivate you in ways that playing for Tour purses didn't?
No, it was just fun. That's probably the biggest misconception — we never played for enough money that it was any big deal back then. It was about the bragging rights and the fun and giving the other guy just a rash of crap the whole way around. That was the way we played. The standard game was $20 automatic one-down presses, which is nothing huge. We weren't playing for hundreds and thousands. It was just enough that you could give the other guy crap while he's putting. The biggest amount I ever lost was at a practice round at Muirfield at the British Open with [Tom] Watson and [Mark] Calcavecchia and [Fred] Couples. A thousand pounds went to anybody who played that day and didn't make a bogey — who but Watson would come up with this? So it's blowing about 15 [mph] or so that day and three of us had made bogeys by the fourth hole, but not Watson. He ground his ass off and didn't make a single bogey. I tell you what — you talk about a guy crowing. We paid him, but we didn't hand it to him. We stuck it under his door.

You once told your manager, Vinny Giles: 'I probably kicked away half a million dollars in my career. When I had four or five holes to go and realized there was no way to win the tournament, I'd just lose the desire.'
Well, it just kind of went. Back then the money wasn't that big. If you go back and look at most of my biggest money years, they were odd-numbered years because in those years you got Ryder Cup points for top 10s. So I would grind to get into the top 10. It never resulted in more wins but it resulted in more top 10s.

You'd get crucified for saying that today, that you threw in the towel.
Well, I wasn't throwing in the towel. I just tried to make everything happen — you know, holing 4-irons from ridiculous places. I wasn't quitting, but I probably didn't play the smartest golf in the world.

Your sole major win came at the 1977 PGA at Pebble Beach. Did you really swig some beer before your three-hole playoff with Gene Littler?
We didn't know we were playing off. The playoff had always been the next day. That was the first major ever contested at sudden death. We didn't even know where we were going. They said, "First tee." I had to go to the bathroom, so I went in the pro shop and there was a buddy of mine sitting there drinking a beer. So I said, "God, give me a swig of that." I took a little swig and went out to the first tee.

You had money to burn after that victory — literally. Tell us what happened to your winner's check.
[Laughs.] Let's just say we didn't lack for a celebration that night. My wife and I were dating at the time and she was out there. We fielded a whole bunch of phone calls and probably had a bottle of wine at the hotel. Then we went out to dinner and somebody gave us champagne and then we hit the Hog's Breath [a local bar]. Our room had a fireplace in it, and it was getting hot, so I got up in the middle of the night to turn the fireplace off and I looked and saw something. I reached down and it was a piece of paper. I started to throw it in the fire and I said, "Wait, what is this?" It was my check for $45,000. I guess I'd thrown it at the fireplace and missed at some point in time.

It's been three years since CBS Sports replaced you in the tower with Nick Faldo. You've said you miss the camaraderie. What don't you miss?
The day-to-day grind of it, and having a boss sucked. I'd never had a boss, and it wasn't exactly my favorite thing. I don't miss that at all. I don't miss being told where to be and where I have to be. I never had that.

Your dismissal was quite sudden and unexpected. Are you bitter at CBS?
It is what it is. It's what some suit wanted in New York, and he got what he wanted — for better or for worse.

Do you know who made the decision?
Yeah, but I'm not going there. I'm fine with it. Once I got a settlement, that was fine. My family was delighted that I wasn't going to do it anymore. All of a sudden I was missing things my boys were doing. I was missing things my grandkids were doing, because I had to be somewhere.

What was your relationship like with Faldo when he took your job?
I didn't have a relationship with him, period. I don't think anybody did.

Did you resent him?
No, nothing like that at all. Probably the thing that got me about the whole situation was that Jim Nantz is basically the voice of CBS Sports, and when Ken Venturi left, Jim was in the loop the whole time about who was going to take Ken's spot. Jim had actually come to me years before and said, "When are you going to get involved with this?" He thought I'd be good at it. He said he'd like the chance to work with me and we got along great. We had a lot of dinners together. We enjoyed a lot of the same things. I've known him a long time. He was shocked, really taken by surprise. I guess I would be shocked too if I was Jimmy and I was told who I was going to work with and not have any say in it — especially with his stature in the business.

Is Nantz comfortable working with Faldo?
Jim's got a job to do, and he's the ultimate professional. He's going to do his job the best he can regardless of the situation. If they think [Faldo's] contributions are better, then they came out ahead. If they don't, then they didn't. That's up to them and the public.

Would you take another TV job?
It would have to be a helluva offer. Like I said, I appreciate not having a boss.

In August 2008, you had a double fusion back surgery, your fourth back operation in two years. How are you feeling?
Since then I've been like a brand new person. The doctors in Dallas did a wonderful job. I also had a lipoma, which is a like a fatty cyst, removed from the back of my neck. It came out the size of a softball, which is kind of mind-boggling. So the toughest thing I had to heal up was this hole back here in the top of my back. It's still indented. Getting old sucks. It's definitely not for sissies.

You've returned to the Champions Tour. Can you still win out there?
It's probably the first time in my life I don't know what to expect. My swing speed and length sill seem to be pretty close to where they were. My nerves are still good. Would I like to take giant steps? Yes. But they're probably going to be baby steps. We'll see.

You've always been supremely confident. Where did that originate?
When I started playing, when I was 8, 9 years old, I knew I was better than the guys I was playing with then. And when I got to the next level I thought I was better than those guys. Maybe having a brother [Bobby, who also plays on the Champions Tour] that was only a year behind me — we went at it pretty good. The cool thing for me now is watching my boys. They're five years apart, but Tucker is so good at 17 that when they go play nine, it pushes Travis to the limit. I heard a great line last year. Tucker looked at me and said, "Dad, you know you're now the fourth-best Wadkins. There's Uncle Bobby, there's Travis, there's me, then you."

Do you ever wish you were more humble during your career?
I don't think you can be in this game. To be successful out here, I don't care who it is, at some point in time you're going to find a sense of arrogance and a lot of confidence and a guy who's selfish to an extent. You have to be. It used to be we didn't have a coach, and a sports psychologist and all that kind of stuff pushing us. You did it on your own. You made yourself work. You had to be disciplined. You had to have a lot of selfconfidence. My idea of a sports psychologist was a friendly bartender at the end of the night.

Are today's players too coddled?
Yeah, it's way too easy. There were over 100 guys last year who made $1 million or more. They don't play enough golf. I yell at my boys all the time to go out and play. They go to the practice tee all the time and there are pyramids of golf balls sitting out there for them to hit for hour after hour. When I was a kid, if I hit practice balls I had to pick them up myself with a shag bag. So basically I hit balls once a week and played 54 holes a day. That's where you learn to play golf — on the golf course. You can learn how to swing on the practice tee, but you're not going to learn a thing about how to play.

Was it harder to win majors when you were playing than it is today?
I look at Tiger Woods and what he's winning, and I look at the guys that win majors that he's playing against. The names just aren't there that played against Nicklaus. Gary Player had nine majors. Watson had eight. [Lee] Trevino had six, [Raymond] Floyd with four. And Hale Irwin with three U.S. Opens. Johnny Miller. The list goes on. The quality of today's players just isn't there. The next best guys [behind Woods] are Vijay and Ernie and Phil and now Harrington with three.

So it's not just a matter of Tiger being way better than everyone. You're saying the talent level among the top players isn't what it was during your day?
Exactly. I really think that. I've watched a lot of it on TV. Every time there's a great tournament, it's not Tiger going against Phil or Tiger against Ernie. It's Tiger against — and I don't mean to disparage these guys — Rocco Mediate or Bob May. That ain't the same as Jack against Watson or Jack against Miller. Or Arnold and Gary having a playoff at the Masters. It's not the same.

In any way do today's players have it tougher than your generation did?
They have to deal with a lot more press and scrutiny. I can't imagine all the times there would be stories about us hanging out in bars and doing stuff. Cell phones — good God, I'd be scared to death of them. Can you imagine how many times [pictures of us] having a beer would be on the Internet? Your privacy is gone. We were pretty anonymous back in the early '70s. We did a lot of the things that youngsters like to do. Today I'm not sure they could get away with that.

They can't. Look at Anthony Kim. He took flack during his rookie year for showing up to events hungover.
And the problem with that is? [Laughs.] Hey, he's 23. You got to live a little bit. That's why I really question these guys not doing at least two, three years of college. That's where you get it out of your system. I only went three years, but I was desperate. I was broke and had no place to go. I had to play golf. They get million-dollar contracts coming out of college now. I got one for $7,500 from Spalding.

Tell me about the '83 Ryder Cup. I read that you forced Barbara Nicklaus to chug a bottle of champagne out of the Cup.
I didn't. I'm not going to take the blame for that. That was Jack on his own. Fuzzy [Zoeller] started the whole thing. We were all in there semibehaving and then Fuzzy took a giant bottle of champagne and turned it into an instant wet T-shirt contest for the wives, and then we all started drinking champagne out of the Ryder Cup and we had a sip and Jack said, "Barbara, you haven't had any yet." It was about two-thirds full and as he went to give it to her, he grabbed the back of her head. She had to either drink it, let it run all over her or drown.

The Americans don't seem to celebrate as wildly these days, or at least they do a better job of concealing the revelry.
Maybe, but we always had good ones when we won. We had a great one in '77 at Lytham. It was a hoot. There is not a bar that had the alcohol in it that Dow Finsterwald had in our team room. Of course he had to satisfy Don January and Dave Hill and that crew. It wasn't, "What do you have?" It was, "How many single malts do you have?" It was impressive. And then the very next Ryder Cup we had Billy Casper as our captain, and we couldn't even get a Coke or iced tea in our team room. It was milk or water. We went from one extreme to the other.

You're famously meticulous. Do you still do your own ironing?
Oh, of course. Who else is going to do it? One of the great things is that all the hotels have irons now. You don't have to carry your own anymore.

You're a perfectionist.
Always have been, yeah. I'm a little anal about some stuff.

Like Camilo Villegas. He numbers his socks.
I don't go that far, but I get it. [Laughs.] But, you know, you find somebody like that and they're probably going to be successful. If you're meticulous about your appearance and the way you look, it will carry over to other things you do. I do all my own travel arrangements because I want to make sure that it's done right. That way I don't have to get to airports or hotels and argue, and I've got all the confirmation numbers. I know if I do it myself, it's done right.

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