On the fourth hole of the second round of the Kemper Open Friday, Craig Stadler missed about an eight-foot putt for birdie. At one under par for the tournament, he still was well out of the lead. Yet a few moments later, his caddie, Joe Brennan, was saying to Stadler's wife, Sue:
"Betcha $5 Craig wins the tournament."
Betcha what? Sue was startled. Craig hadn't broken par in lord knows how long, hadn't gotten within a drive and a long iron of it the last several rounds, had in fact been tired and apathetic the last week or so. She eyed Brennan as a friend suddenly gone daft.
"We're gonna win this week," he repeated. "Late tomorrow afternoon we're gonna pull away."
Late yesterday, as the sun finally broke through over Congressional Country Club after a day of mostly swingin' in the rain--and a two-hour delay--Stadler had charged into the lead, pulling Jack Nicklaus and the rest of the field behind and making Brennan seem like a bag-toting Jeanne Dixon.
With 18 holes left, Brennan isn't sticking his chest out too far. Something about not rousing sleeping Bears. But neither is he about to make any retractions after his man followed Friday's 67 with another.
Why had Brennan been so brash at such a seemingly inopportune time?
Because Stadler finally had gotten angry, although that was not quite how Brennan put it.
"He'd been elsewhere mentally last week (in the Memorial tournament, when he finished 62nd)," Brennan said.
"So apathetic," Sue said. "He'd dump a ball in the water and go"--she snapped her fingers, as a person who had just failed to light a cigarette in the wind might. Stadler was acting casual with his livelihood on the line, until that missed bird restruck his competitive flame.
"Couldn't make anything happen," he said of his prior slump, of being mostly less than mediocre since winning the Masters in a playoff. "Played pretty good and still finished something like 55th and 60th. My game was better than that. I just wasn't getting rewarded.
"Now it's all catching up."
Indeed it is.
Stadler had six birds on the last 11 holes Friday and five more yesterday, including a run of three in a row on six, seven and eight. Almost as remarkable, he hit the 18th fairway with his tee ball.
"He tends to forget where the fairway is here," Sue said as both strode down 18, he toward that shiny agate in the short grass and she outside the ropes, not far from where somebody stole the foul ball he struck in the final round last year. So safe was his lead by then, all Stadler had to do was keep from being whisked away himself to win.
On a different, harder Congressional, Stadler won last year with a lights-out, 10-under 270. With a round left this year, he's already at 10 under. But not until he gave Sue and his growing gallery of Congressional admirers a scare at 18.
Stadler may never play that hole conventionally. He was into a stand of trees to the left off the tee Friday and made bogey. From dead center of the fairway yesterday, he pushed his approach into the deep right rough. He was pin high, but on a downslope 20 yards from the green and perhaps 26 from the flag, facing a shot that required fluff and quick brakes.
"Craig has handled this type of shot very poorly lately," Sue said.
That was an instant before Stadler swung. The ball popped up, so gently that had it been lined with needles the green wouldn't have cried ouch when it landed. He tapped in from about four feet for par.
Magical things happen to Stadler here. Whatever ails him gets cured. He finished second the first year the Kemper was here and first the second. He's leading by three shots after three rounds of the third. Possibly, he could chuck his clubs, drive and putt with a baseball bat and still beat par.
"Why this happens I don't know," he said. "But I sure don't mind it."
"Fairly incredible," Sue said.
She was talking about Craig's turnaround in less than a week, and a friend standing nearby volunteered: "He's just found out what that new baby will cost."
The new one is expected to arrive near Thanksgiving.
The 2-year-old already on tour, Kevin, has been one of the hits of Congressional. People keep stopping to pick him up and hug him. So far, the Stadlers are the first golfing family of Congressional Kemper.
Prognosticator Brennan skipped the start of the graduate summer-school program at Rutgers to rejoin Stadler this week. They've grown to prominence together since Quad Cities three years ago.
At the time, Brennan had recently graduated from St. Joseph's and was looking for adventure before settling into grad school. Saddled with a player not likely to make a fortune, he spotted Stadler at Milwaukee. You could spot Stadler very easily back then, but Brennan also noticed that his caddie was a young girl one day and an even younger boy the next.
The good times shortly began to roll.
"We played awful the week before finishing second to (John) Mahaffey," Brennan said. "Last year, we were playing well before we got here."
And played even better.
At one point yesterday, after Stadler's wondrous wand of a putter struck again, Brennan said to Sue: "What am I doing in school?" There's money in them thar sticks.