Match play king Wadkins may have met his match in Father Time

May 26, 1991|By Ivan Maisel | Ivan Maisel,Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH, Texas -- He is in a match he admits he can't win, which may be a first for Lanny Wadkins. He is 41 years old. The end of his PGA Tour career is three-up with three to play -- dormie, the golfing term is.

Wadkins is running out of holes. Not even the man considered by his peers as the best match-play golfer in spikes can win this one.

But if age is going to beat him, it had better make some birdies. Literally and figuratively, Wadkins hasn't stopped firing at the pins.

"The only thing that bothered me when I got to be 40 was the sense of urgency," Wadkins said. "It was the first time I ever realized my career would not last forever."

Wadkins' 20th season on the PGA Tour may become his best. In 12 events before this weekend's Southwestern Bell Colonial, he has one victory, four top-three finishes and seven top-10 finishes. The victory at the United Hawaiian Open, his 20th, moved Wadkins into third place on the career victories list among the regularly active PGA Tour members. Only Tom Watson (32) and Raymond Floyd (21) are ahead.

It is no coincidence that Wadkins is second on the money list this season with $558,072. It is a Ryder Cup year. He is first in qualifying points (525.199), making him a shoo-in for the U.S. team. In September, the United States will attempt to bring back the Cup from Europe, which has held it since 1985.

It will be Wadkins' seventh Ryder Cup appearance. Only three other Americans -- Billy Casper, Gene Littler and Sam Snead -- have played in as many.

In the 1985 Ryder Cup match at The Belfry in England, the partisan crowd booed the U.S. players as they were introduced on the first tee.

"It bothered me," Peter Jacobsen said. "When they booed Lanny, he looked up and said, 'I love it.' He proceeded to knock it down the middle and beat the pants off the guy he played."

In 1989, captain Floyd chose Wadkins with a wild-card pick. On the final day, Floyd placed him in the next-to-last match, the position reserved for those who cannot and will not choke. Wadkins, at the end of his poorest season in eight years, defeated Nick Faldo, one-up.

The point Wadkins earned -- and the one scored by fellow Wake Forest All-America Curtis Strange against Ian Woosnam in the final -- secured a comeback tie against the Europeans. In a recent television interview, Wadkins interrupted commentator Ben Wright to correct a misconception that the U.S. team lost.

"Come on, Ben," Wadkins said. "You don't have a very good memory. We didn't lose. As a matter of fact, Curtis and I dusted their two heroes."

In the 1983 Ryder Cup, Wadkins needed to win the par-five 18th at PGA National in Florida to salvage a tie with Jose-Maria Canizares of Spain and a victory for the United States. With his teammates watching alongside him -- and feeling the weight of the country on his shoulders -- Wadkins lay two, 80 yards away from a pin placed right behind a bunker.

The sand wedge shot nearly went in the hole, Wadkins birdied, and that was the last time the United States won the Ryder Cup. After the victory, team captain Jack Nicklaus said Wadkins "needs a wheelbarrow" to carry the guts necessary to hit that sand wedge.

"He has left a pretty indelible imprint on people's minds that he will hit the shot he has to hit to win the tournament," said Vinny Giles, his agent who, like Wadkins, is a Virginia native and former U.S. Amateur champion.

"He's going to fight you tooth and toenail," Ben Crenshaw said. "Most of the time, Lanny's playing well. The few times he isn't playing well, he'll get it around somehow. That's the player who's dangerous."

For all his accomplishments, Wadkins has gone unnoticed by the public. The public pays attention to majors. Wadkins has won one, the 1977 PGA, the same number as Wayne Grady, Jeff Sluman, Lou Graham, Jack Fleck and Tony Manero. His record in the majors is a pothole on the road to posterity.

"I've had some opportunities," Wadkins said, as wistfully as the self-confident get. "I've got a lot of seconds and thirds. It's been a little frustrating. My game is set up for those courses."

Wadkins drives straight. He is among the best iron players on the tour. At times, his putter left him. At the Masters, his brain left him -- it took Wadkins 15 years to realize he shouldn't hit at the pins on the hilly, deceptive greens. Once he did, he finished third the last two years.

Wadkins has three runner-up finishes at the PGA, including a sudden-death loss to Larry Nelson in 1987. He finished second to Floyd at the 1986 U.S. Open, capping a streak of four top-seven finishes in five years. He finished fourth in the Seve Ballesteros-Tom Watson duel at the 1984 British Open.

Good record, yes. But winning major championships spells the difference between recognition by peers and by the public -- between respect and history.

Being the most-feared match-play golfer in the nation is as worthwhile as being an excellent wishbone quarterback. There's not a big market out there.

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