For 30 years there’s been a two-word rebuttal to those who think pro golfers are all tall, blond and bland: Craig Stadler. One of sport’s most recognizable figures — with one of the great nicknames — the fiery Walrus looks more like a guy who fixes sinks than one who makes millions on the links. Fans first noticed his now-famous temper at the 1982 Masters, when he snarled his way to the green jacket (a snug size 46). Since last June, Stadler has starred on the Champions Tour, where he won three of his first 14 events (plus the 2003 B.C. Open, his 13th PGA Tour title). He also got into trouble earlier this year, when he was arrested in Michigan for allegedly drinking and driving. (“It was not a DUI,” he says. “It was an OWI — operating while impaired. I was stopped for making an incorrect left turn.”) An embarrassed Walrus made a public apology.
Stadler’s bulky body, handsy swing and take-me-or-leave-me attitude have endeared him to a large bloc of fans (and a bloc of large fans). He favors Wilbur Smith adventure novels (“We can’t all be intellectuals”) and likes a glass of bold cabernet. But the 51-year-old is no wine snob, as he showed when he sat down for a talk and a beer or two.
You love to hunt. What’s your game of choice?
Elk, deer. Also, a lot of birds — dove and duck. I don’t hunt much in this country. I go down to Argentina.
Speaking of shooting, lately your aim’s been true on the course. In 2003 you became the second player to win on the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour in the same year, and you’ve been hot in 2004. What gives?
You never know when, why or where. Sometimes you aim everything at the hole and the ball just goes there. I love the Champions Tour. I got tired of the regular Tour last year. I was playing like crap. My wife said, “What’s wrong? You look pissed off.” I said, “I’ve done the same job for 28 years. I’m entitled to get tired of it.” But now I feel rejuvenated. I played the same places for 28 years, and now I’ve got a new golf course every week. And three rounds and no cut — it’s awesome. I have a different attitude in the first round. I come out firing.
After your Masters win, your most memorable moment was when a viewer busted you for kneeling on a towel at the 1987 Andy Williams Open and got you DQ’d for building a stance. Should fans be allowed to call in?
I don’t agree with that. We police ourselves just fine.
Before 2003, your best season was 1982, when you won four times, including The Masters. How would the 51-year-old Walrus do against the 28-year-old Walrus?
Dolfie! Dolfie! Otra cerveza! [Stadler’s longtime caddie, Jeff Dolf, fetches his boss another Bud Light.] The equipment and my game tee-to-green have improved light years. I now drive it 25 yards farther and a hell of a lot straighter. I am a better iron player, but not as good a putter. The 51-year-old me would win 1-up.
Today’s balls are mostly low-spinning, but you like to cut it.
I don’t bend it as much now, but that doesn’t bother me. I enjoy hitting it straighter. Seven-irons that I once hit 40 to 50 feet from the hole I now hit to 10 to 15 feet. I don’t necessarily think it’s the ball, though. I think it’s the shafts, which make a hell of a difference. But we’ve got to do something. A lot of courses are obsolete. It’s a shame, because classic courses like Merion have no room to expand. The game is easier for the average player, so golf is more accessible. But now you’ve got to build a 7,500-yard course to make us hit 6- and 7-irons into par 4s.
You dropped 60 pounds in 2000, but your game suffered.
Everybody says that, but at my lightest I played well and got beat in a playoff [at the Shell Houston Open]. It’s difficult losing weight, and I gained it back. I may be overweight now, but I could climb mountains for 10 straight days and not get winded.
You roomed with Scott Simpson at USC in the 1970s.
I had an absolute ball at SC. We lived in this old six-bedroom Victorian. We moved the chandelier out of the dining room and put up a practice net. We hit balls out of open windows too. Scott drove a Vega, which may have been the worst car ever built. His nickname was Stimp, so we called it the Stimpmobile.
What did you drive to Tour events in the old days?
A brown two-door hatchback Camaro. Before that I had a red Camaro, four-on-the-floor with a spoiler in the front and back. A hot son of a bitch. I drove it my first year on Tour, until I basically blew it up. Golfers have gone from cars to coach class to first class to private jets.
You and your wife, Sue, have been married for 25 years. How have you held it together?
We get kind of sick of each other [laughs]. When I’m home more than six weeks, it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. I tease her and say that if I were at home 52 weeks a year we wouldn’t be married. But it works out perfect. She has a love-hate relationship with golf. She’s with me more now, but she’s got her own business in Denver — interior design and antiques. She comes out five or six times a year.
To exotic stops like Hawaii?
She’s not so big on Hawaii. Last year she came out to Detroit and Endicott, New York.
Lucky her. On the subject of family, your son Kevin is trying to earn his Tour card this year, and he’s played well. [On the same day in June, Craig and Kevin won on the Champions and Nationwide tours, respectively.] Have you offered him any words of wisdom?
Oh, great question. I haven’t been asked that in about five minutes.
Moving right along…your interests go beyond golf — you invested in some horses a few years back.
It was fun. I took a flier on one horse who went on to win a race by eight lengths. Another horse I named Nomorethreeputts. She was a 2-year-old thoroughbred from Chile. Fast as can be — I mean rapid! But she had a problem around the turns; she kept clipping her heels, cutting herself. We tried to pad her legs and ankles but it didn’t help. She never raced. I was heartbroken. I really wanted to hear, “And on the outside, Nomorethreeputts is pulling away!”
You’re a wine connoisseur. How do you rate David Frost’s and Greg Norman’s wines?
Frostie’s cabernet is very good if you open it and let it sit. Norman’s shiraz is also good, though I’m a cab lover.
You recently built a new house near Denver. Does it have a big wine cellar?
It’s a good-sized room, 12 feet by 20. Ought to hold about 3,800 bottles.
How did you get into wine?
It started in the ’70s when I played a tournament in Napa. [Former Tour pro] Woody Blackburn and his wife came out with Sue and me, and we stayed at a friend’s house. We’d have elaborate wine tastings — line up 40 different chardonnays and rate them from one to 10. I knew whites pretty well. About five years ago I started enjoying reds. I bought a few cases and started comparing notes with Jeff Sluman. Now I’ve got 100 cases of wine.
You’ve been critical of the media for focusing on the negative.
You guys have a job to do, but your personal feelings affect it. I’ve bitched at [USA Today golf writer] Steve Hershey about that for ages. It’s always negative. I’ve never understood it, because golf is the cleanest product in sports. Pardon my French, but in golf if you f— up, you’re out of here. It’s not like baseball and other team sports. I don’t think the media gives us enough credit.
People don’t understand — they think we’re playing for a lot of money. We’ve got four guys making $4 million because they’ve had awesome years. And frickin’ A-Rod makes $17 million a year!
Do you get sick of being interviewed?
It gets old. Sometimes I want to say, “Just read the media guide. It’s all right there.” Whatever you guys think of me is the way it is. I don’t try to make you happy. Why bother? I just answer the questions, bulls–t a little bit, be a little sarcastic, which I always am.
Recently, after a 16-year relationship, Spalding chose not to renew your contract. What happened?
They sent my agent a fax exercising a termination clause, the bastards. If they want to terminate me, fine, but to this day I have not gotten a phone call. I had everything with them — ball, shoes, glove, irons, woods, bag, hat. And you can print this: I couldn’t care less. There was no “Thanks for 16 years.” Instead, there’s a f—ing fax — and not even to me. Not even to me! [He makes a graphic gesture with his right hand.] So there’s no love lost there.