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Stadler's no fashion plate, but he cuts a figure on the links

Maybe this year's Masters champion did come up a little short in the United States and British Opens, but he can still do more things with a golf club than a juggler with a dozen pie plates and two bamboo sticks.

Craig Stadler is the kind of guy who gets into your mind and stays there - for all the wrong reasons. Stadler in no way conforms to the tour's cookie-cutter image of handsome, blond young men with 30-inch waists and $85 haircuts, who also look as though they just walked off the pages of a fashion magazine.

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Craig not only buys his clothes off a rack, sometimes he forgets to remove the rack. And there is no corking the rumor that when he played college golf for former Coach Stan Wood at Southern California, he'd often show up for matches wearing socks that didn't match.

Today, because of a heavy reddish mustache that curls toward South America, they call him the Walrus. The fact that the woods in Craig's golf bag are fitted with covers on which tiny walrus heads have been printed is a clear indication that he knows the commercial value of instant identification. Why he hasn't turned up on television selling something nobody needs is beyond me.

Stadler and the standard golf instruction books are about as close as Nome, Alaska, and Miami Beach. He just goes out and wins tournaments; he doesn't explain 'em. But he gives you the distinct impression that he is capable of getting whatever score is needed to win.

There simply aren't that many young golfers around with Craig's power, putting touch, and ability to scramble out of tough situations. Yet nobody goes around videotaping Stadler's backswing or the way he huddles over a putt. Most people know that what works for him probably isn't going to work for them.

What he most resembles is a 28-year-old out-of-season department store Santa Claus who has also got the smarts. No truck driver ever read a road map with more confidence than Stadler reads a sloping green. The day he chose pro golf over baseball, the American League lost what could have been one of its best designated hitters.

Although Stadler gets ripped once in a while in the press for his temper, he doesn't make a habit of it anymore the way he once did. This is no John McEnroe, that's for sure, and he actually comes with the same blue-collar appeal that also belongs to Lee Trevino. His fans never seem to care whether his pants are precisely the right length or whether his shirttail is in or out.

Stadler was given his first golf club (by his father) when he was 6 and growing up in La Jolla, Calif., where even during a bad weather pattern it's possible to play golf 364 days of the year.

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By age 10, Craig had become a five-day-a-week golfer who was already establishing a pro's feel for the game. Later there would be the offer and acceptance of a golf scholarship to USC.

Yet when Sports Illustrated asked him recently if he ever takes the game home with him, Craig replied matter-of-factly:

''Golf starts at the first tee for me and ends on the 18th hole. I might show a little excitement if I win. But if I shoot a 78 and blow a tournament, I'm not going to be a bother to anyone for the rest of the night.

''Everybody's been talking about my temper this year because I've been playing so well,'' he continued. ''I play rotten, nobody says a word. I do have a temper. But as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing wrong with getting upset.

''I mean, you're out there for five hours and you're not allowed to show any of your feelings? Something is wrong with that.''

Stadler's play in the big events after the Masters has been disappointing (10 strokes out of first place in the US Open and 14 strokes back in the British Open), but overall he is still the tour's leading 1982 money winner, with earnings of more than $300,000. Not bad for a guy who looks as though he shouldn't be driving anything more exciting than a 1975 pickup truck with chipped paint, a dent in the side, and one of the wiper blades missing!

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