SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Craig Stadler remembers being at Pebble Beach for the 1982 U.S. Open, two months after his Masters victory. His son, Kevin, was just over 2 years old, oblivious to the rigors of preparing for a major championship. He just wanted to play.
“Kevin’s diaper was sticking out of his shorts or whatever and we were hitting balls,” recalled the man known as the Walrus. “He was down there for three hours straight hitting balls, and I went to pick him up and go back and he just screamed bloody murder. You hope you get a 2-year-old to focus on something for three minutes, but he was down there for almost four hours. It was awesome.”
Five years later, the son was bounding around Torrey Pines when his father placed a towel on the ground to hit a punch shot from his knees. Found in violation of the rule against building a stance, instead of finishing second he was disqualified. “I was only 7 at the time,” Kevin said, “but I remember afterward he was one pissed-off dude.”
Kevin Stadler was a PGA Tour kid who’s blossomed into a PGA Tour champion. This week marked his 239th career start, but his first victory – a one-stroke triumph over Bubba Watson and Graham DeLaet – has been a lifetime in the making.
It’s a feel-good story, too. For years, Craig has continued teeing it up at Augusta National in hopes that Kevin would soon join him. When son finally tees it up in the field with dad this coming April, it will be the final time for the past champion.
“It’s really my last one,” Craig said by phone minutes after Kevin’s victory. “I kept saying, ‘You know, when he gets in, that’s my last one.”
“He probably would have liked it better,” Kevin added with a smile, “if I had gotten there five years ago, so he could call it quits then.”
The son is a proverbial apple who hasn’t fallen far from the tree – at least on the course. He shares an inherited ball-striking ability with his dad, though not the hot temper. And now he becomes just the ninth son to join his father as a PGA Tour winner.
When Craig maintains, “We don’t look even remotely close to each other,” everyone within earshot laughs, because, well, of course they do.
There can be a lot of pressure on the son of a Masters champion who is trying to walk in those footsteps, but Kevin contends that he’s never had any issue with such a burden.
“It's the only last name I have ever had, so it's just normal for me,” he explained. “Everybody asks me that question and I don't even think about it.”
Here’s where the feel-good story takes a left-hand turn.
That common bond between father and son, from hitting balls together at Pebble Beach to the still-infamous violation at Torrey Pines, has taken its toll over the years.
Kevin bristles at being called Baby Walrus. He doesn’t suffer comparisons to his father. And when asked to describe their relationship, he demurs.
“It's fine,” he said coolly. “I’d rather not talk about that, but it's fine.”
The cryptic comment can only leave us guessing at past conflict, but we can guess that it’s much better than nonexistent and something less than perfect.
Craig was out of the country until Saturday, but left Kevin a few text messages during the week, telling him he was playing well and needed to make more putts. “Standard messages I get from him,” Kevin disclosed.
During the course of Sunday’s final round, he was thinking about his dad. From gaining the lead on the ninth hole to losing it on the 11th and eventually clinching when Watson missed a 5-foot putt on the final green, he thought about how time is catching up to his father and how special it would be for them to compete in the Masters together.
“That was in the forefront of my mind when I was out there,” he admitted. “He's been telling me for a couple of years I need to hurry up and get there before he calls it quits.”
As for Craig, he couldn’t be prouder.
“I'm his biggest fan,” he said. “He probably doesn't know it, but I love watching him play on TV and on the Internet. I don't get to watch him play live too often.”
Then he adds an off-course thought about his son: “He's a great kid.”
When apprised that his father said those words, Kevin alters his previous statement of not wanting to speak about their relationship.
“I get along with him fine,” he said. “I'm just not as close with him now as I used to be, but he's still my dad. I love him.”
Father and son together at the Masters. The first father-son duo to ever compete in the tournament together.
Even if everything about Craig and Kevin Stadler’s relationship isn’t perfect, this part still counts as a feel-good story.