Lanny was super, just as Lanny predicted - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Lanny was super, just as Lanny predicted

In his first full year on the tour, Lanny Wadkins backed his own cocky talk by winning one tournament and earning $116,616, a rookie record

The PGA's $7.5 million road show ended its 11-month tour last week amid the absurd splendor of Walt Disney World, a monument to Mickey Mouse in a swamp near Orlando, Fla. Jack Nicklaus, the star, ended the year the way he began it, winning. The $30,000 gave him $320,542 for 1972, and made him the first golfer to top $300,000. Arnold Palmer, that former leading man, missed the 36-hole cut, thus winding up what in many ways was his worst year since he turned pro in 1954, failing to win or share a title. And Lanny Wadkins, a 23-year-old rookie and Wake Forest dropout who has the look about him of a suntanned chipmunk, finished the season as the juvenile lead, thereby living up to his own expectations and at the same time making believers of a lot of early skeptics.

Wadkins, you see, had startled his elders on the pro tour last year by declaring, impertinently as they saw it, that he would not be satisfied with less than one tournament win and $100,000 in first-year earnings. Now Lanny is satisfied. He won $116,616, more than any rookie ever, and in October he yanked the Sahara tournament in Las Vegas right out of the overlapping and interlocking grips of no less than Palmer and Nicklaus. Earlier in the year he finished second two weeks running, at the Hope and Phoenix, losing the latter in a playoff. Those who used to call him a cocky kid now refer to him as a confident young man.

"It's funny about goals," said Wadkins as he contemplated the luxury of a month at home in North Carolina. "It's hard to sit down and formulate them, but once you begin playing they eventually present themselves. Like this summer, sometime in July, I had already won around $60,000 and I realized I could probably break Bob Murphy's rookie money record [$105,595 in 1968]. That gave me something to shoot at, so, coming into the Sahara when I had to have a win to break that record, I got it."

Money, in the amounts that Wadkins has won it, will buy a lot of respect on the pro tour, respect for the skill and nerve that it takes to get it. Unlike many other athletes, a pro golfer earns his pay stroke by stroke through an arduous schedule that has no off-season. There are no salaries and no bonuses, and a new player starts his first tournament knowing that his expenses are going to be about $25,000 and that he may not earn a dime. Though most of them begin touring with the backing of a sponsor who guarantees expenses in return for a percentage, often half, of winnings, the young player looks forward to the day he will have returned the backer's investment with reasonable interest and is free to keep the produce of his labor. His worst fear is of earning so little during the term of his agreement that the backer will drop him before he has a chance to prove himself.

Lanny Wadkins began life as a pro several thousand dollars in debt as the result of a successful amateur career. With almost no money in the bank and the assurance of loans from friends if things got really bleak, he chose to go out on his own, without sponsors, and, as has happened many times since, his confidence in his ability paid off. By the end of the Doral tournament in March he had won $44,277 and his financial worries were over.

The gamble was characteristic. Johnny Miller, who himself has been coming on steadily since turning pro in 1969 and who nearly broke $100,000 for the first time this year, says, "Lanny is the boldest player I've ever seen, probably a lot like Palmer used to be. People say he's cocky, but he has reason to be. He hits more good shots than most people." Caddie Leonard Thomas, also known as Fat Jack, who has been watching the new ones for 12 years while carrying for the likes of Sam Snead, says, "He's good. But when he starts hooking is when he starts playing bad. He's got a lot of nerve, though."

"Nerve. That's what keeps coming up about Lanny," says Dave Marr. "I think it's probably premature to say he's the best ball striker around, as some people have, but there's no doubt he's good. He's criticized for his grip and his swing, but there must be something right about them. They work under pressure."

The Wadkins swing is anything but pretty, and he admits that he doesn't fully understand it. "I was taught the basics and then just told to whomp it," he once said. "I haven't sought any advice this year. I was playing well enough that I didn't want to mess around with anything. But you can learn a lot by just watching. I watch the good ball strikers—Nicklaus, Weiskopf, Knudson, Aaron, Snead, Heard—to be aware of the things they all do well: takeaway, shoulder turn, leg action. Putting is the weakest part of my game and I'm going to have to work on that."

Steve Melnyk was U.S. Amateur champion in 1969, the year before Wadkins, and has played with him as both an amateur and a pro. Melnyk says, "It's not that he's a bad putter. His putting is just overshadowed by his hitting. He doesn't have to be a great putter because he hits it so well."

Wadkins has already taken the first step toward putting excellence. He has learned to whistle on the greens. "Just now and then," he says. "Sometimes it relaxes you a little. It's good to be easygoing and carefree. I guess I've learned that from playing practice rounds with Jerry Heard." Besides practice rounds, Heard and Wadkins have shared this year a rented house at the Kaiser International in Napa, Calif. and a victory in the CBS Golf Classic filmed early in the fall. Heard is a big, friendly Californian whose own rookie year, 1969, was nothing to write home to Visalia about. He was 129th on the money list. By 1970, though, he was exempt from qualifying and by '71 had won a tournament. This year he won two tournaments and $136,897, trailing only Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, George Archer and Grier Jones.

"Lanny has some things to learn," says Heard. "Just like we all do. Things having to do with attitude. He tends to get mad at himself, to let things upset him once in a while, but he has so much ability that I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be just as good or even better next year. He wants to be good. If he has to improve his putting, he will."

It appears that if Wadkins has a problem during his second year it may be that the expectations of his friends exceed even his own. His own sound reasonable enough. "For a start I'll try to win a tournament again, and as soon as possible. Besides that I haven't thought very much about it yet. Maybe there is such a thing as a sophomore slump. I don't know. But I don't intend to find out. It seems to me that if you're good, you're going to play good consistently."

However, Bob Murphy, who was also a first-class amateur player and whose rookie year might be considered better even than Wadkins' on the ground that his share of the total purse that year was greater and he had two tournament wins, followed with a disappointing second year—half as much money and no wins. On the other hand, Jack Nicklaus, whose rookie earnings were $62,000, not only won the U.S. Open but took 3.5% of the total prize money, compared to Murphy's 2% and Wadkins' 1.5%. Nicklaus followed his own rookie act with the Masters, the PGA Championship and nearly twice as much money.

"Lanny is going to earn more money than he can count in the next 10 years," says Bert Yancey. "He's already a star. The only question is whether he's going to be a star of the Palmer, Nicklaus, Player type, or something somewhat less."

Lanny himself is not ready to talk about such possibilities yet. What he will talk about is going home. He and his wife Rachel have bought a condominium adjoining the Bermuda Run Golf and Country Club, a development outside Winston-Salem, N.C., and filled it with things chosen carefully from the showrooms of the local furniture industry. They have tried to get there once every six tournaments or so this year for a two-week stay. "Getting home is nice, but you really need two weeks to get unpacked and settled. Anything less and you're still living out of suitcases, just like being on the road," said Rachel between visits to the Magical Kingdom at Disney World. "The tour is hard at first. Everything is new, every town is a strange town. You don't know where to go, where to eat. Next year should be easier."

Neither of the Wadkinses is quite so starry-eyed as both were last March when Lanny said, "We're having so much fun you kind of worry something's going to happen." The midsummer tour through the Midwest was long and hot, the traveling began to take its toll, "and there were some bad towns." But there were good times, enough to warrant looking forward to more. "It's fun to go back to a tournament you've played well in," he said. "It sparks you up to have people shouting encouragement at you." There are friends now to rely on for companionship, encouragement and needling—Miller and Heard, J. C. Snead, Bruce Fleisher, Forrest Fezler and all their wives. There is a business manager who has relieved Lanny of his off-course problems. Money is already coming in from arrangements such as the one he has with Ford.

And because Wadkins is now an exempt player he will be able to plan a more reasonable schedule for the coming year, ideally, he thinks, four or five weeks on and two weeks off. Bob Murphy tried it a different way his second year and learned what he calls a "cheap lesson" in the process.

"I set out to try to substantiate my income that year," says Murphy. "] made lots of appearances and set up outside business arrangements here and there. I did well financially but my golf went down as a result. I was trying to do all those things and still play the full schedule I'd played the year before. I'd show up for the pro-am on Wednesday and tee it up Thursday and I just couldn't do it. I call it a cheap lesson because I learned and came back the next year with $120,000.

"It's hard to say whether Lanny will be a great player. That depends on what tournaments he wins. A great player has to win major tournaments. But there's no doubt he'll win. He has that quality. You've got to remember, though, that a lot of great players had less auspicious starts than Lanny Wadkins did."

While still an amateur, Lanny played in the 1970 Heritage Classic on the difficult Harbour Town course at Hilton Head. He surprised everyone but himself by finishing second to Bob Goalby. For Wadkins it was merely confirmation of what he had long suspected. He could play with the pros, even the best of the pros. And nothing since has happened to alter his estimation. But there is still a chapter missing from the Lanny Wadkins book—the one about adversity. Try to imagine the stories of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Ken Venturi or Lee Trevino without it. Adversity will come. It does to all golfers in one form or another. The heroics in golf lie always in the meeting and dealing with it.

Will his celebrated confidence hold up when the hard time comes? Five days short of his 23rd birthday Lanny Wadkins said, "I've never had a reason to feel otherwise."