Golf Magazine Interview: Lanny Wadkins

Golf Magazine Interview: Lanny Wadkins

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.