Lessons from '79 loss helped Stadler take Masters title

There is a saying among Masters veterans that you have to lose this esteemed golf tournament to win it. Craig Stadler proved the theory yet again.

In the 1979 Masters, Stadler was tied for the lead after seven holes on the last day. But in the next four holes he suffered two double bogeys and two bogeys, eliminating himself from contention with a horrible finality.

Several times during that stretch he slammed the club against the ground. Sitting on a bench at the 13th tee waiting to drive off, Stadler buried his face in his hands and appeared to weep.

Today he looks back on that bleak episode and sees it as a turning point in his career. It was then he resolved to contain his fiery emotions and develop consistency under pressure.

So well has he fulfilled his goal, he is the 1982 Masters champion, having defeated long-hitting Dan Pohl on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff Sunday after they had finished tied at 284, four under par, for the regulation 72 holes.

For a quite while, this year's windup had a deja vu look it as Stadler let a six-stroke lead slip away on the back nine of Augusta National, the storied old course that has turned so many runaways into photo finishes. He collected himself, however, to par the first extra hole, the 10th, as Pohl bogied.

''My wife Sue is a stabilizing force for me, and she helped me pull myself together after I three-putted the 18th green to fall into the playoff,'' Stadler said. ''She pumped me up on the way to the 10th tee. She said that what's done is done and there were just two of us left, and to go out and do the job. That settled me down and put me in a positive frame of mind.

''I told myself one of us had to win and it might just as well be me. Sue's great that way. She's helped me manage myself as well as manage the golf course.

''Somebody asked me what my priorities are, and I said my wife and young son are on top of the list and everything else comes second. Winning a major championship won't change that.''

Stadler had won four tournaments, none of great stature, since joining the tour in 1976 out of the University of Southern California, where he made all-America twice and won the US Amateur.

He won at Tucson in the first tournament this year, and has contended almost every week since. As was pointed out in the Monitor's preview article last week, he was a logical choice in the Masters even though he was largely overlooked.

Overlooking Stadler isn't easy on the face of it. He's anything but the cliche young golfer - blond, tall, lean, and movie-star handsome -- the tour so often is accused of attracting.

His nickname ''the Walrus,'' derives from his roundish build and bushy mustache. It doesn't offend Stadler, who is engagingly jovial when he isn't trying to hit one perfect golf shot after another. His wife gave him a set of walrus head protective covers for his woods.

''I guess all those guys who ask for a second serving of potatoes were pulling for me,'' he said with a smile after donning the traditional green jacket. ''Some people probably were surprised they had a jacket that fit me.''

Stadler guessed that the jacket was a size 46, though there were those of us who considered it a highly conservative estimate. At 5 ft. 10 in. and well more than 200 pounds with forearms like a lumberjack's, he looks more suited to a 50.

For all his heft and power -- he long has been one of the biggest hitters on the tour - it is his deft touch with the short game that makes Stadler a winner. No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus, in fact, proclaimed Craig a star of the future when he saw him play as an amateur. ''He has tremendous touch from 50 yards in,'' Nicklaus said at the time.

The Augusta greens, converted to bent grass a year ago, were back to their once terrifying speed this year, and Stadler's putting set him apart. In the third round, on Saturday, he sprayed the ball badly with his longer clubs but made several heroic putts to move into a three-stroke lead.

''I putt fast greens well,'' Stadler pointed out. ''I grew up on fast greens in Southern California and I love them . . . the faster the better.''

He went on to say that he has given up distance off the tee in favor of more control.

''Five years ago I would hit 40 to 50 balls out of bounds in a season. Now I hit four or five out. I've opted for accuracy, but I still have the capability to add 15 yards to my tee shots when I need to.

''I like to play with a cautious aggressiveness. I was a club thrower as a kid, but that doesn't work. You have to control yourself to play golf well. ''In 1979 here, I learned what not to do out there the final day. On a subtle course like this, you can't learn enough about positioning the ball in the right spots and managing the course intelligently. It takes a few years.''

Craig Stadler, the 28-year-old Masters champion, had to lose the tournament to win it and is enjoying his victory all the more as a consequence.

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