By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
PITTSBURGH - Sometimes it takes a heightened level of frustration, bordering on resignation, that leads to taking unwanted action.
Craig Stadler resisted the notion that he needed a remedial session until he finally could no longer accept the declining state of his golf game. Until that point, Stadler said, his reluctance was mostly about stubbornness.
“You always think you can fix it on your own, but I didn't know what the heck I had to fix,” he said.
There was plenty, and he left that part to Billy Harmon, who “completely changed everything in my game from stance to ball position to squaring up shoulders to grip,” Stadler said.
Suddenly, someone who has played golf his entire life without thinking about too many things at all had a lot to think about.
“These are major changes for me,” Stadler said. “I have three key thoughts before each shot. I’ve never had one (thought) before. Just get up and hit it. This is totally unnatural.
“It’s a work in progress but it’s certainly paying off.”
Exhibit No. 1: Last week’s victory at the Encompass Championship. It was Stadler’s ninth career victory on the Champions Tour, and his first in nearly nine years. Stadler went 171 starts since his last victory at the 2004 SAS Championship.
Stadler’s timing is excellent. The victory ushers him into this week’s Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship at Fox Chapel Golf Club and that certainly must resonate.
Stadler’s first Champions Tour victory came at the 2003 SENIOR PLAYERS Championship at TPC Michigan. He went on to win twice more that year and added five titles in 2004, including his second major, at The Tradition.
He was a dominant force on the Champions Tour back then but things have been on the decline since 2009. In 81 Champions Tour events over the last five seasons, Stadler had made just six top 10s (none in 2011) until the victory at North Shore. It’s no surprise that Stadler said the decision to consult Harmon was “do or die."
“Fix it, or I was going to quit,” Stadler said. “I was playing so bad it just wears you down. Just pure and simple, I was horrible.”
Stadler has received dozens of congratulatory calls and emails, many from his colleagues on the Champions Tour.
“I was so excited to see Craig Stadler do what he did,” Steve Elkington said Wednesday. “These guys get into contention, they don’t forget what they’re doing. It’s getting into contention, getting out of the gate.”
Stadler took a break from tournament play and went to Palm Springs to confer with Harmon.
“I walked out on the back range and Billy's standing there and he said, ‘What are we doing?’” Stadler said. “I said, ‘You've got two days to either fix it or I'm done, very simple.' He looked at me and said, ‘Let's go.’”
Stadler returned to the Champions Tour for the Regions Tradition. He had three solid rounds at Shoal Creek, including a closing 69 that didn’t start very well (3 over after 4 holes) but later featured six birdies. Suddenly, things were looking up. Next stop was Encompass Championship.
At North Shore in suburban Chicago, Stadler fought back a challenge from Fred Couples.
“It kind of kick-started a little bit of thought process that maybe you can do this again,” Stadler said.
The downturn in his golf was painful because for Stadler, 60, like every other golfer on the Champions Tour, the competitive juices continue to flow.
“Everything just got bad, so I just kind of went on a mission and it was either try to figure out what the heck I'm doing wrong,” he said. “It's kind of getting fixed. Everything's new.
“I've always been competitive, I just haven't been very good at it the last five, six years. Once you start doing this for a lifetime, you kind of have it in your blood and you either keep going, or when you become totally noncompetitive you just quit. I was pretty close to that point three months ago.”
Until the victory, Stadler’s best finish this year was a T23 in the season opener in Hawaii.
The SENIOR PLAYERS is the third of five majors on the Champions Tour schedule and it’s the first time in a long time that Stadler is keen to play.
“I’ve done this for 40-some odd years,” he said. “Some weeks you come away really happy, some weeks you hated the fact that you even showed up. I’ve had the majority of those the last four, five years.”
Stadler is glad he showed up for the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship.
“I haven’t looked forward to a week of golf in a long time,” he said. “It’s fun. I’m actually excited about this week. I really feel like I wanted to come out and hit balls. That’s a plus.”