Lanny Wadkins: ‘He didn’t know how to lay up’
Lanny Wadkins wasn’t thinking about the World Golf Hall of Fame during that two-week hospital stay in 1974. Doctors took out his gall bladder and appendix. A three-year slump followed. He battled his swing without a teacher, just as he did in 1981, when tendinitis and a “bone on bone” condition in his left thumb led to a grip change and another temporary dry spell.
Those were Wadkins’ obstacles en route to Hall enshrinement, Class of 2009. But he overcame the physical problems and a putting stroke that was average, at best, a stroke that Johnny Miller and Jerry Heard made fun of in the early years. Asked how he managed to fight through it all, Wadkins said, “Perseverance and meanness. I was going to get back, come hell or high water.”
While digging out, he told his caddie he’d double his salary if he didn’t hit a flagstick during a range session. It took three hours, but he clanged one off of his favorite inanimate object in golf. As six-time major winner Lee Trevino said, Wadkins would “shoot at a pin in a pontoon boat – and if it was moving. Two-irons, 1-irons. He didn’t know how to lay up.”
As two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton seconded, “I don’t think he ever shot away from a pin. That’s all he saw.”
Fearless single-minded focus led to a resume that fellow Wake Forest alumnus Arnold Palmer, among other legends, endorses as “most certainly worthy” of the St. Augustine, Fla., shrine: U.S. Amateur and PGA champion.
Twenty-one PGA Tour victories at cathedrals such as Pebble Beach, Riviera, Colonial, Firestone and Doral. Ryder Cup stalwart (20-11-3 record) who lived for the biennial matches. Players Championship winner the year 50-mph winds blew portable toilets over. Nine top 3s in majors. Top 15 in earnings 11 times. Hard-edged partner in Tuesday money games.
“He’s the only guy I’ve seen play golf aggressively 24/7,” Stockton said. “He never backed down. He basically never thought he’d miss a shot.”
Wadkins, 59, swaggered his way to success. This is new ground for the Hall. Nobody in there played safely less, walked with such a confident strut or, for that matter, backhanded as many putts. Passion has two edges.
“He was the gutsiest sumbitch I’ve ever met,” Trevino said. “He had so much confidence that he was cocky. But there’s nothing wrong with that if you can back it up like he did.”
When Wadkins stiffed a 72-yard wedge shot at 18 and clinched a one-point U.S. victory at the 1983 Ryder Cup, captain Jack Nicklaus kissed the divot and said, “Lanny’s (guts) are
so big they need to carry them around in a wheelbarrow.” The next year, Nicklaus presented him with a gold wheelbarrow at the PGA champions’ dinner.
Wadkins got his ultra-competitive nature from his parents – a truck driver and schoolteacher. “I’d race the dog to the mailbox,” he said. He learned to scrap in Richmond, Va., by playing 36 holes a day on a course with small greens, practicing only once a week. Self-assuredness was born during teenage trophy collection and “beating the crap out of” younger brother Bobby, another longtime touring pro.
“I thought I could win every tournament,” Wadkins said. “I was just confident in everything I did from Day One. Don’t ask me why. I just expected to win.”
Having Palmer as an idol ramped up Wadkins’ aggressiveness. Playing money games on Tour against the likes of Palmer, Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Hale Irwin sharpened his edge. One such Tuesday at Hilton Head lasted 36 holes because Palmer called for two emergency nines.
Wadkins didn’t have Nicklaus’ length or Ben Crenshaw’s putting touch or Julius Boros’ calm.
But his authoritative striking sent the ball at the target, particularly under
pressure. A golf magazine cited him as the Tour’s best in driving, mid-irons and short irons in different years.
As 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon said when watching son Dick instruct Wadkins, “The only thing you can teach him is how to take another way to the bank.”
Bobby Wadkins says his brother wanted to win more than any golfer he’s ever seen. The week of the Hall announcement, though, Bobby played the role of partner instead of opposition at the Liberty of Mutual Legends of Golf. When they holed out at 18, Bobby hugged his brother and said,
“It was an honor to play with you. I’m just very proud of what you’ve done.”
Lanny Wadkins, the tough guy, teared up. “Nothing has touched me more,” he says now.
More 2009 Hall of Fame profiles:
• Dwight D. Eisenhower: Golf at the White House (by Adam Schupak)
• Christy O’Connor: A fluid swing forged by ‘Himself’ (by Alistair Tait)
• Jose Maria Olazabal: Dignified, determined and dazzling (by Alistair Tait)
• Lanny Wadkins: He didn’t know how to lay up (by Jeff Rude)