Masters 2014: Kevin Stadler, Craig Stadler and the problems between fathers and sons

April 7, 2014

The business between a father and a son can get complicated in a hurry, so Kurt Schuette adjusted accordingly when he was recruiting Kevin Stadler to play golf at USC in 1998. Schuette knew that Kevin's father, Craig, had been a four-time All-America with the Trojans in the 1970s, had won the U.S. Amateur while in college and had gone on to a gilded professional career that would yield 13 PGA Tour victories, including the '82 Masters, and nine on the Champions tour.

So Schuette decided the first order of business would be to recast Kevin Stadler as Kevin Stadler, not Craig Stadler's Son Who Also Plays.

"I challenged him," says Schuette, who these days works in fund-raising for the golf program. "I said, 'One of the things your dad didn't do is win a national championship,' and Kevin got this big smile on his face."

Fast-forward 16 years and Kevin is still trying to outdo his dad, although now there's more than the competitive juices at play. In February, Kevin earned his first trip to the Masters when he won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in his 239th start on Tour, then watched as the world tried to turn his complicated relationship with his father into a Hallmark card.

The story lines from TPC Scottsdale were these: The Stadlers became the ninth pair of father-son winners on Tour. They will become the first father and son to compete in the same Masters. After watching the WMPO from his home in Denver, Craig was put on speakerphone in the pressroom, regaling writers with a yarn about bringing toddler Kevin to the range at the 1982 U.S. Open, plunking him down in the fresh grass and marveling at how the kid swatted balls for hours with his diapers poking out of his shorts.

Left unsaid was that Kevin, 34, and Craig, 60, have gone long stretches without talking to each other since Craig and Sue Stadler divorced in 2006. The topic came up anyway (sort of), when Kevin was asked to comment on his relationship with his dad. "It's fine," he said. "[I would] rather not talk about it, but it's fine."

When's the last time you saw a Hallmark card that said that?

Kevin's home is minutes from TPC Scottsdale, and on the night of his breakthrough it was filled with at least 40 friends—among them fellow Tour pros Tim Clark, Charley Hoffman, John Mallinger and Jeff Quinney—who celebrated with him deep into the night. All of them know how hard it is to win, and most had a pretty good idea of what Kevin had been through, the constant reminders of his DNA and all, en route to victory.

Although Kevin is still tight with his mother—he took Sue to Europe in the off-season—it has long been an open secret on Tour that he and Craig are ground under repair. Neither spoke to SI for this story. Schuette knows both men well, and while he doesn't presume to be privy to the dynamics of the relationship, he still fights back tears when asked about their history.

"I know Kevin's dad loves and cares about him," Schuette says. "I have a lot of respect for both of them. I think as time goes by, whatever wounds they have between them will heal."

The similarities are unmistakable. Each man is listed at 5'10", 250 pounds, and they've been called the Walrus and the Smallrus. (Kevin hates the nickname.) When Kevin won the 1997 Junior World at Torrey Pines, observers noted his score was 13 strokes better than Craig's winning total in 1970.

Tired of the comparisons, Kevin asked Craig not to attend the 1999 Colorado Match Play Championship. Craig stayed home, and sure enough, Kevin won, but Craig was on the bag for Kevin's first pro victory, at the 2002 Colorado Open. They teamed up to win the '02 Office Depot Father-Son Challenge and won on the Champions and Nationwide tours on the same day in '04.

"I'm his biggest fan," Craig said at the WMPO in February. "He probably doesn't know it yet, but I love watching him play on TV and on the Internet."

Those comments, as well as Craig's assessment of Kevin as "a great kid," seemed to generate at least a degree or two of warmth in return. "I get along with him fine," Kevin said upon being told of his dad's kind words over the speakerphone. "I'm just not as close to him now as I used to be, but he's still my dad. I still love him."

For the record, Kevin did not surpass Craig at USC. The Trojans didn't win a national title. "We came close," says Schuette, who will attend the Masters with Kevin. "We won a couple of conference championships, and he got better every year. He averaged 76 as a freshman, but he kept working and averaged 71 as a senior. He was Pac-10 player of the year and an All-American."

It was at USC where Kevin converted to a broom-handle putter. Furious at how badly he had putted as a freshman, Stadler was with his coach at a golf shop in Scottsdale when he picked up a long wand for the first time.

"He was 15 feet from the cup, and he made at least eight, maybe nine out of 10 putts," Schuette recalls. "He got this coy look on his face like, I think this might help. It helped change his attitude as well as his game."

There was a time when Craig called Kevin "his own worst enemy," because the son, like his father, displayed a sometimes molten-hot temperament, but when they were paired in the second round of the 2010 Bob Hope Classic, Craig saw signs that Kevin had mellowed. "His course management is much better, and he looks comfortable out there, like he knows he belongs," Craig told GOLF MAGAZINE in February 2010.

Still, it took a while to get that first W, and there was little indication it was coming. Kevin hadn't won since the European tour's Johnny Walker Classic in 2006, and before clipping Graham DeLaet and Bubba Watson by a shot at TPC Scottsdale, his best showings were a pair of seconds—at the '07 Reno Tahoe Open and at the '09 Wyndham, where he lost in a playoff.

Whether the relationship will be much improved by the time the two get to Augusta remains to be seen, and even if it's not, Kevin especially will have to decide how he wants to play it for the media. There are those who would contend he has had it easier, being the son of a successful Tour pro, what with the excellent access to top facilities and the absolute best instruction. But you could argue the opposite is true. There's a reason why the sons of Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd and Gary Player never made it, despite their obvious talents.

Craig will make this Masters his last; the course became too long for him years ago. He is still competitive on the Champions tour, but only barely—his most recent victory, at last year's Encompass Championship, broke an eight-year drought. Part of him would rather live vicariously through the Colorado Avalanche (he has season tickets) or through his progeny as Kevin aims to build on his own success.

Kevin continues to forge his own identity even while answering the same old questions about his dad. People want answers, even stock answers, so he obliges because, as his father might say, he's a great kid. There are things Craig Stadler won't ever accomplish—like winning in Phoenix, for one, or winning a U.S. Open or a British Open or a PGA. But maybe that upward/downward mobility stuff doesn't matter anymore for two men who made it on their own terms, each good enough to succeed against the best of his generation.

The Hallmark card tells us exactly how this will end. Kevin keeps winning, the comparisons with his father subside, and someday—exact date TBD—Kevin and Craig sit by the fire and recall the 2014 Masters as the week they began to forgive and forget and start anew, nudged toward reconciliation by their shared love of the game, a former coach and the National in full bloom. But it's complicated.