TROON // The sport of golf traditionally derives personality from the animal world. The two best men to have played the game are a Golden Bear and a Tiger, while here at the Senior British Open yesterday a Great White Shark sank his teeth into the third round. The biggest beast in the game, certainly bigger in physical stature than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods or Greg Norman, is the man who is affectionately known to millions as The Walrus.
Craig Stadler sports the same tusk-like moustache that was always his trademark, and despite being more of a woolly mammoth these days as he participates on the US Champions Tour he remains a worthwhile contributor. A cherished hole in one at the eighth hole, the acclaimed Postage Stamp, in his opening round helped Stadler, now 55, make the halfway cut at Troon. He pocketed 123 bottles of wine for that effort with his pitching wedge on the 123-yard hole and, like a fine wine, he seems to be maturing nicely.
Stadler's most alluring moment was winning the US Masters at Augusta in 1982 after he downed Dan Pohl in a play-off. He was also a sturdy part of two US Ryder Cup teams - in 1983 and 1985. When Stadler was starting his professional career, the Ryder Cup was similar in style to the America's Cup in sailing. It was very one-sided, with the US defeating Great Britain and Ireland without much consideration until Europe joined in 1979.
Europe lost their first three Ryder Cup meetings with the US before Tony Jacklin's team snagged a win at The Belfry in 1985, and the dashing Seve Ballesteros helped transform the event into a taught contest. The absence of Woods for the match at Valhalla in September due to a knee injury is a seismic blow to the US team, despite his surprisingly indifferent record in the competition. Stadler feels that the US will be inspired even without the world's best player.
"Without Tiger, I think that they might play better," he said. "I think they will believe that because he is not on the team they have to go out and prove themselves, and will play better. "They will use his absence to motivate themselves. You always hope that we can play better, but it is still such an unpredictable event." Stadler, playing with Curtis Strange, missed a three-foot putt against Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle in the 1985 matches that allowed the European pair to earn a half, and gain momentum towards a five-point victory.
In recent times, Europe have enjoyed the type of success that the US found commonplace during Stadler's eminent years. One win at an ill-tempered Brookline in 1999 is the solitary US success over the past six tournments. In a bid to restore parity after two heavy losses, the US captain Paul Azinger has been granted four wildcards for his squad. Azinger famously saw off Ballesteros in the singles at The Belfry in 1989, as the US held the home side to a draw.
His redoubtable spirit was evident in 2002 when he chipped a bunker shot into the 18th hole to delay Europe's win. "Paul has the right character to be a very good captain," said Stadler. "He has history in the event, and will use that experience to inspire the troops. I'm sure of that." Stadler looked more in need of an ice drink than a bottle of wine after an exacting few rounds at Troon, but he believes the heat at Valhalla in Kentucky could also be a factor.
"It shouldn't be too hot there in September, it should start cooling off a bit, but it is a hot place," he said. "They've played the USPGA there a couple of times, so it's not like the guys haven't played there before. "I'm just hoping we can keep it tight going into the singles on the final day." Stadler praised Tom Watson's form over the past three days in Troon after enduring a forgettable afternoon himself yesterday.
He posted a 76 to end the day at 11 over, and well out of contention for the trophy. Yet Stadler's hole in one proved that while form is temporary, class is permanent. @Email: firstname.lastname@example.org