Stadler Popular Winner in Chicago

Though he has a gruff exterior, Craig Stadler is in fact a charming, likable bear of a man. So it was no surprise that the 60-year-old player known as "The Walrus" for his girth and trademark mustache - now completely white - was a popular choice Sunday when he hung on to win the Champions Tour's Encompass Championship near Chicago.

It had also been a long time since Stadler last visited the winner's circle, a regular occurrence when he was younger. The owner of 13 PGA Tour titles - including a green jacket from the 1982 Masters, also accumulated nine more victories on the Champions Tour when he turned 50 in June 2003.

But after winning eight of those on the over-50 circuit over a two-year period, it'd been an extended drought since Stadler's last Champions Tour triumph in the SAS Championship in September 2004.

Yet Stadler had his game in order over the weekend at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. Stadler began working with instructor Billy Harmon three months ago and the effort showed, opening with rounds of 67 and 65 to take the lead into the final round.

He built that margin to five strokes early on the front nine Sunday thanks to four birdies in the first six holes. But then Stadler made things interesting, carding four bogeys over a seven-hole stretch to reduce his lead to one.

Then it was hang-on time. Though he hit some errant approaches and didn't sink many putts, Stadler came through in the clutch, parring Nos. 16 and 17 before getting up and down from a bunker behind the 18th green and making a 12-foot putt for par, a 1-under 71 and a one-stroke victory over Fred Couples, who closed with a 66.

"It looked really familiar to the putt I made a billion years ago at Akron," Stadler joked with reporters later. "Kind of left to right, just kind of dripped it in the low side."

Right before the putt, the ever-honest Stadler told his caddie Jeff Dolf, "If I miss this right, just shoot me."

He added that the scene was reminiscent of a winning putt he made in the 1992 World Series of Golf at Firestone, which gave him a one-stroke win over Corey Pavin. "I just kind of talked to myself a little bit walking back to it," Stadler said. " 'You made that one, make this one, what the heck.' "

Jeff Sluman, who lives in nearby Hinsdale, Ill., had a chance to force a playoff with a birdie and a miss by Stadler. But Sluman, also a class act who two-putted for par on 18, wasn't disappointed with how things turned out.

"Obviously I wanted to make the putt on 18 and have a chance at a playoff, but to see him make that putt, it was really, really important to him, and the crowd was really pulling for him," Sluman said. "I couldn't be happier for him. You've got a great champ."

Ben Crenshaw congratulated Stadler in the scoring area, called the win "wonderful." "He always had the talent," Crenshaw told the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein. "I know the last few years have been (tough), but it proves that talent doesn't leave. He played some marvelous golf. That was a great par (on 18). What a pure putt."

Stadler's between-victory gap of eight years and nearly nine months is the longest stretch in Champions Tour history, surpassing J.C. Snead, who went almost seven years between titles from 1995 to 2002.

"When's the last time I had anything to win a golf tournament?" Stadler said. "It was a while ago. So be it. I missed every putt on the back nine and finally made one that counted."