At the end of this year's Los Angeles Open, winner Lanny Wadkins came bouncing off the final hole at the Riviera Country Club looking like a big cat that had just swallowed $72,000 worth of canary. The grin on Wadkins's face, his eyes firing off bursts of emotion, told the story of his course record-shattering 20-under-par 264 for 72 holes far better than all the superlatives you could jam into a computer or borrow from Madison Avenue.
Although there were a few guys around who didn't want to acknowledge Lanny's score until they had seen film on the 11 o'clock news, those in the gallery will never forget it. They will remember it like a first bicycle, a first baseball glove, or a first violin lesson.
Ordinarily, even players whose career earnings have jetted over $2 million aren't able to take a championship golf course apart as though it were some kid's Erector Set. Usually winners in pro golf are those who negotiate courses a little better than the rest of the field; make a couple of long putts at crucial times; or discover a stroke they didn't know they had coming out of the sand trap.
After all Riviera is a well-groomed 7,000-yard layout with an unforgiving reputation. This isn't some loosely run municipal golf course where pars drop like candy out of a vending machine. Often Riviera can be as fickle as a teen-ager; as stubborn as a double-parked truck driver; as ill-tempered as a junk yard dog. Most of the time it is going to have its own way.
Golf is not a game where you store your best shots on coat hangers and then reach for them as you need them, certain that they will be exactly where you left them. No, golf is a gremlin who keeps changing your mind about things; who suddenly makes your putter seem like a stranger; who can shrink the size of a hole only a few feet away until it looks like a thimble.
For four rounds last week in L.A., Wadkins wooed Riviera the same way Ben Hogan did in 1948 and Johnny Miller in 1981. Both Hogan and Miller finished well under par in winning tournaments there.
The difference was that Wadkins managed to do it on prime-time TV while a national audience watched in rapt attention. When caution was required, Lanny took his time and played it safe. When boldness was called for, he took the daring shot. He measured every crack in the green like a diamond cutter, and just seemed to have an uncanny touch all week on those long birdie putts.
Afterwards, Wadkins talked about how kind the course had been to almost everybody during the final round. There wasn't much wind, he said. There wasn't much rough to fight, he said. The greens were softer than he had remembered them, he said.
``At least once a week the weather makes it tough to score well at Riviera,'' Lanny added. ``But it never happened this time, and that, probably more than anything else, contributed to so many low scores.''
Who can say positively when a golf tournament is won or lost or simply kicked away? But the putt that Wadkins made on the ninth green on Sunday is probably the one he would most like to have on microfilm.
Consider the situation. At that point Hal Sutton, who eventually finished second, was still in it. Sutton had made a magnificent birdie, the kind that can hush a gallery into admiration and then ultimately inspire applause.
If Wadkins faltered here, who knows what might have happened? Instead, on a 12-footer that required a four or five foot break to become an eagle, Lanny feathered the ball into the cup. When he followed this with a shot to within three feet of the No. 10 flag, the probable had become the inevitable.
After adding this tournament to his victory in the Bob Hope Classic three weeks ago in Palm Springs, the next thing on Wadkins's horizon is the Crosby at Pebble Beach this weekend. Although the wind coming off the ocean at Pebble can sometimes be difficult, Lanny seems to know how to handle it; he won the 1977 PGA there in a playoff with Gene Littler.
In 14 years on the pro tour, Wadkins has won 14 tournaments including the PGA Championship, the Tournament Players Championship, and the World Series of Golf. Never before, however, has he opened a new year by winning $172,350 in just three outings.
In fact, that figure is within $21,646 of his total winnings in 1984.