Saturday, March 31

A Magnificent Seven, Part 3: Lanny Wadkins at the 1971 Q-School and His Life in Golf

This is the third in a series on players from the 1971 Q-School. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Nearly a half century later John Coyne tracked down Allen Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Leonard Thompson, Sam Adams, John Mahaffey, Steve Melnyk and Spike Kelley. How had pro golf and life turned out for these seven men?

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

LANNY WADKINS WAS ONLY 21 when he arrived at the 1971 Q-School from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He had attended Wake Forest University and played on their golf team. Already he had a stellar record as an amateur having won the 1970 U.S. Amateur with a record 279 score and being the medalist in the Regional PGA Tryout at Winston-Salem that got him to Florida.

Wadkins won the 1977 PGA Championship.
He would tie for second low qualifier at the Q-School, having deliberately played conservatively for six rounds.

"In the last round of the tournament, for example, I played away from water," Wadkins said. "I played away from bunkers. It was a round of golf I had never played before in my life.

"I played very conservatively because I was determined not to screw up. I shot 74 and finished second. But we weren't playing for money. We weren't playing to win. We were playing to finish 23 or better and earn our PGA card."

The next week, with his tour card in hand, he went to Silverado for the PGA Tour event.

"I had a sponsor's exemption and I missed the cut, then I went to Las Vegas and finished 9th. I won $3,300.

"What I remember most about my first year on the tour was that I was close to broke. I didn't have any money.

"And I didn't want a sponsor. Then I played a couple more tournaments and made a thousand in one, a thousand in another. That kept me going.

"We played next at the very first Walt Disney World Golf Invitational. Jack won it and I tied Arnold Palmer for third. That I'll never forget. I won $8,850 and it was enough money to get me through the winter.

"And once I got through the winter and starting the season in '72 I had back-to-back second place finishes on the West Coast at the Bob Hope and Phoenix and from that time on I was okay."

Lanny's first win would be at the Sahara Invitational in 1972 when he finished a stroke ahead of Arnold Palmer. The connection to Palmer for Wadkins went back a long way. Lanny attended Wake Forest on a Palmer scholarship. And Lanny was close to Palmer all of the King's life.

Little did I know back in 1971, when I asked Lanny in the days immediately after he had claimed his tour card at the school to give his advice on how to play the long irons in my instruction book, Better Golf, that on the PGA Tour for the next 20 years he would be considered one of the greatest long-iron players of his day.

In the book, Lanny makes the point that "On the tour we have to hit a bunch of long irons. Those courses are long, and many times our second shots into the target need to be two-or three irons. And they never give us much to shoot at. Accuracy is a problem. Not only must we hit the three-irons, say 210 yards, but we have to draw it in on a string to a tiny target."

But, as Lanny and the other pros from the Q-School have said, with course changes and the ability to drive the ball well over three hundred yards, many of the tour players now only have a short iron into the green.

"The ball has changed the most," said Lanny, "more than the driver."

And while the new ball and new equipment have resulted in course records being broken, there is one tournament record set by Lanny that is still unbroken. He holds the record for Riviera, shooting 264 for 72 holes in 1985.

What has changed is Lanny's career. After winning 21 PGA Tour events, one Senior Tour event and having been on a record eight Ryder Cup teams, he gave up tournament golf to spend his time as a golf analyst, first for five years with CBS and since 2011 as the lead analyst for Golf Channel's Champions Tour coverage. 

What hasn't changed according to the pros from the Class of ;71 is the friendships among young players. Today these older pros are impressed at how close the friendships are among the current crop of "young guns" who follow each other on tour, giving support and congratulations to each other. 

"Only time will tell," summed up Lanny, "whether these guys, most of whom are from the high school class of 2011, are as good as our Q-School players that had multiple major champions like myself, Mahaffey, Watson and David Graham. But what is certain, these young players are great guys."


John Coyne is a bestselling author whose most recent golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

No comments: