GLENVIEW, Ill. — Craig Stadler had been there before, and remembered.
It was 21 years ago that Stadler faced a similar putt to hang on for victory on a Sunday afternoon. He had a 12-foot par putt remaining to win the Encompass Championship, and the setting was familiar to so long ago.
“It looked really familiar to the putt I made a billion years ago at Akron,” Stadler said after dropping the curling putt for a one-stroke victory over Fred Couples at North Shore Country Club. “Kind of left to right, just kind of dripped it in the low side.”
In 1992, Stadler sank a putt much like that one to win the World Series of Golf at Firestone Country Club by a stroke 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.’ “
He made it to win on the Champions Tour for the first time in eight years and collect the $270,000 first prize, finishing with a 1-under-par 71 to total 13-under 203. But it was more of an adventure on the back nine than the 60-year-old Sadler expected after a building a five-stroke lead through the first eight holes of the final round.
“I just kind of hit it down the middle and wonder where it goes,” Stadler said of his driving, which was erratic down the stretch. “I’ve never done that in 50 years, but that’s where I’m at now.”
Stadler’s eight years and almost nine months between victories is the longest stretch in Champions Tour history. He played in 170 events on the tour between victories and battled health issues the past three years.
J.C. Snead had gone almost seven years between titles from 1995 to 2002.
Stadler settled down after bogeys on the 13th and 14th, making par on the next three holes even though he wasn’t always in the fairway.
Following a perfect drive on 18, he pushed his approach into the right greenside bunker. After putting his third shot 12 feet past the hole, he faced a putt that brought back a positive memory, and took him back to the winner’s circle.
“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.”
Stadler hadn’t scored an individual top-10 since tying for seventh in last year’s 3M Championship. Working with teacher Billy Harmon beginning three months ago helped bring Stadler’s game back to championship level.
Couples’ final-round 66 was the best of the day and put him at 12 under, but he bogeyed the final hole.
Mark O’Meara, Bernhard Langer, David Frost and Jeff Sluman were among seven players tied for third at 205.
Stadler held a five-stroke lead on Couples at the turn after birdieing the first, second, fifth and sixth holes. He appeared to be cruising to victory until stumbling beginning at the ninth. Bogeys at the 12th, 14th and 15th followed.
Couples birdied his first three holes, going out in 5-under 31, but had gained only one stroke on Stadler at the turn. He got up within a stroke of the lead until that bogey at the par-4 18th.
“I just kind of shanked it,” Couples said of his wedge approach into a bunker. “It was really a bad swing on as easy a shot as you’ll ever have.”
O’Meara birdied the par-3 17th to jump to 11 under and finished with a 68. Langer, among the first-round leaders, posted a 69, while Frost bogeyed the final hole to score 70 for his 205. Sluman squandered birdie chances down the stretch en route to a 71.
“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.”
Stadler began to diminish his lead on the par-4 ninth when his approach flew over the green and he stubbed the subsequent chip shot. He two-putted from 12 feet for bogey.
As Couples birdied the 11th and 14th to jump to 13 under, Stadler was missing three straight fairways and sliding to 14 under. But Couples failed to convert birdie chances on three late holes, then bogeyed the 18th from the middle of the fairway.
Final-round charges by Langer and Mark Calcavecchia brought them closer to Stadler, but not so close that they threatened the lead. Calcavecchia was 12 under with four holes to play, but bogeyed three of the last four holes to finish tied for 10th.