Back feeling better, Lanny Wadkins is looking to get back on the course

January 28, 2009

A familiar face may return to the Champions Tour this year. Of course, former PGA champion Lanny Wadkins intended to play 25 senior tournaments last year, too, but withering back pain ended that plan. His last senior circuit appearance came in April, when he teamed up with his brother, Bobby, in the Legends. And he only played in that event because he didn’t have to walk.

“Bobby fussed at me because all I did was sit in the cart,” Lanny said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got a choice. I can sit in the cart or you can hit the ball and drag Lanny, hit the ball and drag Lanny.'”

Lanny wasn’t much more mobile when I bumped into him last summer at the Porter Cup near Niagara Falls, N.Y. He was following his son, Travis, who plays at Wake Forest. He couldn’t stand for more than five minutes at a time, and he carried a sitting stick to rest on between shots. “Without that sitting stick, I couldn’t make it,” he said. “I can barely walk.”

But in August Wadkins, 59, had double fusion back surgery, the fourth operation he’s endured in the last two years, all to address a back problem that began during the prime of his career. This time it worked. When I spoke to him last week, Wadkins was getting ready to go hit balls and he was very excited about his improved quality of life and prospects on the course.

“Five months after surgery, I can walk all day without discomfort,” he said. “I’m back hitting balls, even driver. The cool thing is, I can hit balls for an hour or 90 minutes and then go putt. I haven’t been able to do that for ten years, maybe more. I need a lot of work, but I’m going to try to play a lot this year, maybe 20 events.”

That may be easier said than done because his Champions tour status has slipped. He has entered two events next month in Florida — the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton and the Ace Group Classic in Naples, where he scored his only senior tour win in his debut. Otherwise, his exempt status is marginal, and he may have to resort to asking for sponsor’s exemptions.

Some players of his stature might be offended by that idea, but Wadkins doesn’t care. “I just need to play,” he says. “My expectations are always high, but I’m sure I’m in for a rude awakening in the first tournament because I’ve played so little golf for so long.”