The Walrus and the Bear wrestled for five hours in the mud yesterday at Congressional Country Club with a Doctor in attendance. When the muck had settled at sundown, Craig (Walrus) Stadler had shot his second consecutive 67 to catch and pass golf's legendary bear, Jack Nicklaus, in the third round of the Kemper Open.
Stadler, who started the day two shots behind, finished at 10-under-par 206, three strokes ahead of Nicklaus (72) going into today's final round. On this pair's heels is the third member of yesterday's final stylish threesome, Dr. Gil Morgan (70--210).
These same three gentlemen will go head-to-head-to-head again today. The only other players within seven shots of Stadler's furious pace are Wayne Levi (68--211) and Dan Halldorson (69--212), followed, remotely, by Seve Ballesteros (72) and George Archer (71) at 213.
"Hell, two 67s back-to-back, I'm awfully happy. Playin' pretty good," said defending Kemper champion Stadler, grinning with his ruddy Santa Claus cheeks.
"When you don't make a bogey, it's a good day any time. I was never in real danger . . . Let me take these wet shoes off . . . I drove the ball well, finally . . . I'm not the straightest driver around and any time I drive it well here, I'm going to score well. And that's just what I've done the last two years.
"Basically, today was the same thing as yesterday," said Stadler, who came here in a slump, but has now birdied 12 of his last 36 holes. "My score could have been a little bit better but it sure couldn't have been a whole heck of a lot worse."
Nicklaus said, "All I really can say is if I were playing in another group today my (even-par) round wouldn't have looked too bad. It didn't look too good playin' with Stadler."
"I didn't play that badly except I really messed up coming in," added Nicklaus, who fell out of a tie at nine under par by three-putting for bogey from just 12 feet at the unlucky 13th hole, then compounded his troubles with a miserable chip at the 17th that led to another bogey.
"Craig played very well. I thought he hit the ball beautifully, played well, putted well, did everything well . . . Some of those irons he hit out of the rough remind me of some of the shots I used to hit. I lost that (ability) when I lost my weight . . .
"As for myself, I guess I'm now in the position that I play best from . . . (laughs) . . . I hope," said Nicklaus who, in recent years, has often had more luck coming from off the lead than holding it.
The small, damp and faithful gallery that endured a 130-minute midday rain delay was treated to a delightful example of how a medal-play event can turn into glorious match play. The entire day had the feel of a mighty arm-wrestling match between Stadler and Nicklaus, with all the other names on the scoreboard merely window dressing.
In the end, it was Stadler who came home strong. But for two 10-foot birdie putts at the 16th and 17th holes that hung on the lip and wouldn't drop, he might have all but locked up this affair with a five-shot lead.
"When everybody's playing well, like Jack and Gil and I were today, I enjoy it," said Stadler. "Obviously I'm playing very well and Jack's playing very well. I think if he'd made some putts, he could have hit 67 as easily as I did. It just enhances your game to play with a couple of guys who are hot."
Actually, Nicklaus limped in badly. "I felt like I was out there for 23 hours. You gear your breakfast and exercises to your tee time . . . By the time we got to the back nine, I'd used up most of my energy. And I probably looked like it," said Nicklaus.
As Stadler headed for dinner, he passed Nicklaus near the clubhouse. The two gave each other a look of mutual admiration. Stadler took the liberty of slapping Nicklaus heartily on the back.
"See you tomorrow," Stadler said.
The two heavyweights will have a hard time giving a better example than they did on this afternoon of how two hot players react to each other's thrusts and parries. This third round was a many-act play.
Nicklaus took the initiative with an arrow-true two-iron shot and a 14-foot birdie putt at the 215-yard second hole for a three-shot lead. Stadler responded by holing a 40-foot chip at the third hole for a "take that, Jack" birdie.
Nicklaus scored again at the 542-yard sixth hole with a 15-foot birdie putt. But, once again, Stadler had a rebuttal. This time, just one minute later, he'd run home his own 12-foot birdie on the same hole.
"That got me rolling," said Stadler, who ran his birdie streak to three with putts of 10 and 15 feet at the seventh and eighth holes.
As the pair reached the ninth tee, they were even and Nicklaus looked a touch rattled. He almost teed off out of turn before remembering the honor still was Morgan's. Perhaps flustered, Nicklaus drove far right under a tree, and had to get into a preposterous crouch just to punch the ball back into the rough on his way to a tough two-putt-from-60-feet bogey.
On that same ninth, Stadler hashed a birdie chance with a sloppy wedge from 90 yards--usually his hole-card shot. Even though Nicklaus' bogey put Stadler ahead, his failure to capitalize seemed to miff the heavy one. He promptly hit six less-than-pleasing shots in his next eight full swings; though the result was a string of homely pars, Stadler was, nevertheless, growling, muttering mild curses and swatting clubs in the turf.
Nicklaus took advantage, regaining a tie for the lead with a 10-foot birdie at the 493-yard 10th, where Stadler never even reached the green until his fourth shot. The momentum continued with Nicklaus until the 13th hole, the juncture that may have permanently shifted the balance of power in this tournament.
At the uphill 445-yard par-4, Nicklaus hit a long iron to no more than 12 feet for a table-top flat birdie try. Stadler, grumping at his recalcitrant irons, gave himself a 60-foot lag putt that he left seven feet short.
Nicklaus smelled a two-shot swing to himself. Bravely, he rolled his birdie putt, only to see the hideous thing carry 3 1/2 feet past the cup.
How the tide turned. Stadler, almost quickly, rolled his par-putt in the heart. Nicklaus, perceptably freezing over his nasty little comebacker, missed badly. Of the thousand people surrounding that green, 999 could have gotten down in two putts; only Nicklaus couldn't.
Stadler was up by one and never looked back, birdieing the par-5 15th from 12 feet. The shaken Nicklaus missed 10-foot birdie putts at the 14th and 15th that might have salvaged his round, then found the rough twice on the way to his 17th-hole bogey.
The play had come to its last act--the 18th hole.
There, Stadler escaped one last chance to spoil his afternoon.
Nicklaus, after a miserable drive into the right trees, faced an eight-foot par putt. Stadler, after a perfect drive and a stupifyingly wild right-to-right iron, wedged from heavy rough to seven feet for a par putt of his own.
Nicklaus, his putter so shaky (or hungry) for an hour, finally made a vital putt to close his round.
But Stadler, no longer the anxiety-prone walrus of earlier years, answered with a par putt of his own--his way of saying, "Sleep on that."
Once, Stadler, with his tendency to wild drives and his temper, was the perfect sort of fellow that Nicklaus might want ahead of him. That no longer seems to be the case. Now, it is Stadler's powerful irons, his wonderful wedge play (vastly better than Nicklaus') and his streaky putter that seem pertinent.
"Last rounds don't seem to bother me any more. I've been there so often now," said Stadler, who lapped the field on the final today last year, winning by six shots. "I just look forward to having a good time."
To that, Nicklaus had a brief rejoinder. Asked what a three-shot lead amounted to, he said, "It's zero."
Perhaps the bear and the walrus want to wrestle just a little more.