Can a chubby-cheeked fellow who carries a Yellow Pages ad on the bottom of his golf bag ever be a great player? What if his head covers are furry walruses? Ask him how come he hits the ball so wonderfully, and the answer isn't a geometry lesson but a smile and shrug saying, "Beats me, but it sure is fun."
Make no mistake, Jack Nicklaus wasn't the only great player coming to the 18th green at Congressional Country Club late yesterday afternoon. Jack walked a discreet distance behind the better man on this day, leaving the triumphal march to Craig Stadler, who came down the velvet turf as if on a cloud.
His putter in one hand, his right fist clenched, Stadler raised both arms overhead as the cheers and applause came to him at the end of a day's work in which, man to man, he whipped Jack's fanny six different ways. Forgotten were the two hours of torture in April when he staggered to victory in the Masters; forgotten were the ugly calls of "Choke, Craig, you've done it before" that he heard early this day, and all that mattered now was what Nicklaus said afterward.
Sometimes a young player, and Stadler only last week turned 29, can't win for losing after he stumbles to a Masters or PGA championship. The fire of greatness burns too brightly and he may shy away from touching it again. So someone asked Nicklaus how important it would be to Stadler to win again this soon after the Masters.
"He's a pretty good player," Nicklaus said, which words in cold type fail to transmit the real admiration the great one has after these two Kemper days in Stadler's company. "He hit a few shots yesterday that reminded me of myself 10-12 years ago. He was just ripping the ball out of the rough. He overpowers a golf course."
Well, now, we're getting somewhere, because anyone today reminiscent of the young Jack Nicklaus is a remarkable player even if he puts rhinoceros masks on his clubs and advertises bowling balls on his bag.
"Craig is better than anybody I've seen out here," Nicklaus said, speaking of Stadler's monstrous strength from the deep rough.
True enough, no doubt, yet the difference yesterday was not that Stadler worked magic out of the hay. Stadler won this one the way Nicklaus used to win five or six times a year. He made every putt he needed, and, as Jack once did, he even made some he probably shouldn't have. But they were so close they just fell in anyway. At the ninth hole, Stadler said his six-foot putt hit a bump and detoured into the cup for a birdie. Nicklaus' 20-footer, well struck, somehow stayed out.
They all stayed out, in fact, and by the 14th hole Nicklaus was so bewildered by his putting that he began hamming it up for the massive gallery paying obeisance to this blond piece of history. With son/caddy Steve peering over his shoulder at a 14-footer, Nicklaus first pointed left, as if the ball would turn that way.
On second thought, Nicklaus swept his hand right. The ball would roll that way.
On third thought, as a smile played at the corners of his mouth, Nicklaus said loudly, "I don't think either one of us can read this, Steve."
By then already seven shots behind, the tournament over, Nicklaus knew it would get no better and on the 17th green, when fans shouted "C'mon, Jack," he tapped his putter's face and said, "Talk to this. I'm understanding you, but my putter isn't."
Perhaps the tournament was over at the 13th hole, as Stadler would say, or over after the front nine, as Nicklaus said, but in any case the only drama at Congressional yesterday was the visible maturation of a player so good Nicklaus measures him against himself.
Stadler once gave up big leads.
Today he made a big lead bigger.
In a hurry, Stadler made birdies at the first and second holes. He chipped it in at the second from 22 feet, the unexpected success bringing a radiant glow to his abundant face, and from there on Stadler owned the track, never allowing Nicklaus closer than five shots after the fourth hole.
Any hope of a Nicklaus victory flickered at the 12th hole, where Stadler made a knee-knocker six-footer to match Jack's par, and that hope died at the 13th. If Nicklaus were to win, he needed a birdie at 13 while Stadler, say, jerked his drive into the left rough and had to bump it out just to make a bogey.
It was Stadler who hit an eight-iron within three feet of the cup while Nicklaus hacked out of jail by the out-of-bounds fence.
Stadler looked to Nicklaus on the green.
And winked. It had been fun, this little duel in the rain for a $72,000 check, and all that mattered now was Stadler making it to the barn without getting lost somewhere. However painful the last two hours of Augusta had been--and Stadler insisted it wasn't bad at all, just a case of having "a little misfortune there"--it was all curtain calls at Congressional, even with a fan shouting out, "The year of the walrus!"
Stadler smiled a whole bunch then, and on the 18th green he looked across the pond at a bunch of semi-crazies cheering their socks off for him. Would the walrus leap, Pate-like, into the pond, thereby raising the water to flood level? No, but his caddy hurled the winning ball across the pond and the semi-crazies wrestled in the mud for the great souvenir.
He won't ever clutch up in a little ol' $400,000 tournament again, and it won't be long before Craig Stadler wins another major championship. Head to head two days with a Jack Nicklaus who shot 65 here, Stadler shot 67-69 to Jack's 72-74, a 10-shot swing.
They play the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in two weeks.
"See you," Stadler said to Nicklaus, "in a couple weeks."
And he winked one more time.