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CRAIG STADLER IS BACK IN THE HUNT : He's Shooting to Improve His Golf Game, but Family, Hobbies Remain Targets of His Affection

February 17, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In a grass hut on a plain in Zululand, Craig Stadler slept fitfully. The African night was black as sable, and full of strange noises.

So far, the safari had been everything he had imagined, short of having Streep and Redford along for company.

"Africa is amazing," Stadler said later. "A world untouched. A true hunter's ideal. No 7-Elevens, no Holiday Inns. But dangerous, too. Pythons and black mambas all over the place. They bite you, it's sudden death."

Suddenly, Stadler stirred from his half-sleep. Outside his little hut, a wild, high-pitched scream pierced the darkness. Stadler grabbed his rifle.

"I didn't know what the hell was scratching at the door," he said. "You never know what might come out of the bush. Could have been a tiger or something.

"Fortunately, it went away, after scaring the crap out of me. I found out later it was a hyena. Man, I sure was glad I wasn't there by myself."

He was there seeking big game--and escape from the pressures of the professional golf tour. Africa was the ultimate experience for a hunter who has ranged as far north as the Brooks Range in Alaska in quest of trophies and a better grip on himself.

Stadler is a man of contradictions. He is given to fits of anger that distort his ruddy face, with its bushy walrus mustache, a trademark that sets him apart in a sea of clones with perfect backswings and blown dry coiffures.

He's also a softie who arranges his schedule so he won't be away from his two young sons for more than two weeks at a time. What's more, because of the danger, he may not undertake his dream safari--14 days in Zambia--until the kids are older.

He is a perfectionist with little tolerance for a bad shot, whether he's gripping a driver or a .30-06. He abhors drudgery, such as fishing or practicing his golf game. Success has come easily, perhaps too easily, and he could retire in a few years with his financial goals achieved. But there might be an empty spot, an unsatisfied craving.

"I'm very competitive, but I know I don't work hard enough," he said. "The drive to make golf No. 1 in my life isn't there. I've won only one tournament in the last three years after winning seven times in three years. I'd like to win some more, but not at the price of practicing five or six hours a day."

Dick Harmon, golf pro at Houston's River Oaks Country Club, is one of the few men Stadler has ever sought out for advice.

"He hasn't made the sacrifices and he hasn't reached his full potential," Harmon said. "But it's encouraging to me to see an athlete who puts his family way up there in his priorities.

"Craig knows he could work harder, and I think it's important for him to prove he could have another year like 1982 (when Stadler won the Masters and three other tournaments). He's got as much talent as any player you could name."

Stadler is a largely self-taught golfer who used to swat rocks into a canyon as a kid in La Jolla. Recently he began tinkering with his swing, something he hadn't done in 15 years. He believes he can trim a couple of shots off his average once he masters the new swing.

But his other interests--which embrace cooking and skiing as well as hunting--present distractions that may delay the refinement he seeks for his golf game.

The pressures and the complications seem to fall away when he's on a mountain trail or wandering through the jungle in his pith helmet and khaki safari attire.

"There's a lot more to it than just the desire to kill an animal," Stadler said. "I'd probably get almost as much enjoyment out of it if I went hunting for five days and came back with nothing.

"Hunting is peaceful and relaxing, just you and the trees. I love the anticipation, the work of getting to a spot where few people have ever been and getting on the same terms with the animal. Well, almost the same terms. I do have the gun."

He has bagged a Dall sheep, and lusts for kudu, a large, grayish brown African antelope. He isn't interested in shooting lions, elephants or cape buffalo, preferring to go for more populous species.

"My wife doesn't care for the big game I hunt," he said. "But it doesn't bother her if I kill birds, since she can still see 10 million of them the next time she goes outside.

"I stick to the big game that is bountiful and I go for the biggest head. That's usually the oldest animal, which often would be dead in a year or two, anyway."

Stadler recently bought a home at Rancho Santa Fe, about 20 miles north of San Diego. His wife, Sue, saying she wanted to get back to civilization, prevailed on him to abandon Lake Tahoe, where the family had lived for the last several years. They still have a home at Tahoe, which makes a good base for Stadler's skiing and hunting forays.

He can't leave his perfectionism behind, even when he's out in the wild.

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