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San Diego Open Golf : Stadler Can Laugh About Towel--a Little

February 18, 1988|CURT HOLBREICH | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Done in by a home viewer, in his own hometown, no less. Imagine that.

All these years, Craig Stadler had heard how his thinning hair, bushy mustache, bulging waistline and fitful temper made him the professional golfer for everyman.

His was a constituency that would just as soon plop itself down in front of the tube with a cold one for an afternoon of viewing than walk 18 holes on a Sunday morning.

These were Stadler's guys. The couch potatoes.

Well, last year, some of these stay-at-homes ruined Stadler's weekend at Torrey Pines Golf Course, where he had also played during his years at La Jolla High School. And they cost him $37,333.33.

That was what Stadler would have earned for finishing in a three-way tie for second place behind winner George Burns at the San Diego Open. But he was disqualified after the final round because of a rules violation he had committed a day earlier. The violation would likely have gone undetected if Professional Golfers Assn. officials at the tournament had not been alerted to the infraction by television viewers who called to report it.

Stadler left the course that day without commenting to reporters on his disqualification. A year later, as he prepared this week for the start of the tournament today, the subject remained a sore spot.

"Skip it," Stadler said firmly, waving his arms for emphasis but smiling enough that he did not appear to still be raging. "It's been a year. Let a dying dog die."

Or in this case, kneel, boy, kneel. Because that's what got Stadler in trouble in the first place.

Stadler was disqualified for an infraction that occurred during the third round, after he and Burns each shot a tournament-record-tying, 13-under-par 131 through the first two. On the 14th hole, Stadler placed a towel under his knees while hitting a shot from a kneeling position. The ground was damp from an overnight rain, and he apparently wanted to keep his pants dry. But the act came under a new United States Golf Assn. rule interpretation that viewed such action as the improper building of a stance.

The violation carries a two-stroke penalty. Because Stadler failed to declare the penalty after the round, and therefore signed an incorrect scorecard, he was disqualified.

"It bothered me for a little bit," Stadler said, "but it is a done deal now. Done and over with."

He would have no more of the subject. But though Stadler preferred not to talk about his misfortune, he was not so sensitive that he could not joke about it. Even with the crowd at Torrey Pines.

Known more for his club-throwing tantrums than self-effacing humor, Stadler played along with the crowd and fellow players who seemed to get a charge out of bringing up the terrible towel incident during a tournament-sponsored exhibition earlier this week.

When he found himself facing a tricky shot from under some low branches, Stadler reached into his bag and tossed a white towel on the ground. The gag brought laughs from the crowd and a slight smile from beneath Stadler's bushy mustache, which, when combined with his burly, roundish appearance, has earned him the nickname, "The Walrus." It is a handle that he appears to embrace, right down to the puppet-like walrus covers on his woods, despite his many protestations about those who dwell on his weight.

When the laughter subsided, Stadler quickly turned to business. He stepped up and knocked his second shot onto the green of the 447-yard fourth hole. He two-putted from 25 feet for par.

It was a nice recovery and typical of what was a strong exhibition for Stadler. He completed the first eight holes of the South Course in three under par before he was eliminated on the next-to-last hole of the event that eliminated one player after each hole.

The abbreviated round was encouraging to Stadler, who is coming off a tie for 48th in last week's Hawaiian Open, his third tournament of the season. He missed the cut in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic four weeks ago and finished in a tie for fourth two weeks later in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Stadler needed a birdie on the final hole at Pebble Beach to qualify for a playoff for the championship, but made a bogey instead.

"My game has been pretty good," Stadler said. "It's just my putting that hasn't been that good."

Stadler has devoted more and more attention to his family in recent years. He said he will limit his appearances to about 21 or 22 tournaments this year, allowing him more time with his wife, Sue, and their sons, Kevin, 8, and Christopher, 5.

The family was able to go on two skiing vacations this winter, and Stadler found some time in the fall for one of his favorite sports--game hunting. Stadler was introduced to the sport in 1981 by his father-in-law. "He took me once," Stadler said, "and I've been hooked ever since."

None of this is to say that Stadler has turned golf into an avocation. But he has certainly cut back recently, and the results have been mixed.

He finished 39th on the PGA money list last year with $235,831, an improvement over 1986 when he slipped to a seven-year low of 53rd ($170,076) but far from his 1982 earnings of $446,462. That was the year Stadler moved into national attention with four victories, including the Masters.

He has since won only one PGA tour event--the Byron Nelson tournament in 1984. His best finish last year was a second in the Hawaiian Open. In 22 tournaments in 1987, he finished in the top 10 six times and missed the cut in five others.

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