Masters will be Stadler family affair

2/4/2014 - Golf Kevin Stadler Craig Stadler + more
Chubby Golfers Are Back!

Michael Collins puts fitness in the backburner after looking back at the last three champions on the PGA Tour.

The Masters lifetime exemption for its past champions has not been one of my most favorite policies. With a field always hovering somewhere around 90 players, the tournament is the smallest and most difficult invitation to earn of the four majors.

The game's most prestigious event deserves the strongest field. One player who can't compete is one too many.

In their later years as players, one can appreciate watching Arnold Palmer and Gary Player take ceremonial strolls around Augusta National as the patrons remembered their past Masters victories, but I longed for them to stop entering the event.

Or perhaps, if the right thing was for them to be in the field because of their outsized contributions to the mystique of the Masters, the tournament committee should at least invite the top 100 players in the world.

Sure, past Masters champions Fred Couples and Tom Watson, most notably, have handled themselves well against much younger competition.

Still, I was unwavering in the belief that the lifetime exemption should change until Sunday afternoon, when Kevin Stadler won the Waste Management Phoenix Open to join his father, Craig Stadler, in the field this April at the Masters. They will be the first father and son to play in the same Masters in the 78-year history of the tournament.

The Masters field should be expanded to include more players, but I'm glad to see the lifetime exemption policy work for a family.

Craig Stadler, the 1982 Masters champion, last made a cut at Augusta National in 2007. At 60, he is nearing the end of his competitive years on the Champions Tour as well as appearances in the Masters, where he has played every year since 1979. The other three majors have been off his schedule since 2002, a year before he joined the 50-and-over circuit.

Now there is no better way for the elder Stadler to leave the major championship stage completely than to play at Augusta with his 33-year-old son, Kevin, who is a dead ringer for his dad.

The Stadlers should feel very grateful for the Masters lifetime exemption. Their regular tour careers never overlapped. In recent years, Jay and Bill Haas have been the best father and son players in the world. But by the time Bill Haas became a top player, his father was on the Champions Tour.

On Sunday, Kevin Stadler had considered the inevitability of his father's future at the Masters as he battled Bubba Watson down the stretch at TPC Scottsdale. He knew that his first PGA Tour win would have greater significance than just a two-year exemption.

"[The Masters] was in the forefront of my mind when I was out there," Kevin Stadler said. "[Dad's] obviously getting on in his career. He's probably only got -- probably go ahead and assume this will be his last year that he will play there."

Both Stadlers were relieved Sunday evening.

"[Dad] probably would have liked it better if I had gotten there five years ago so he can call it quits then," Kevin Stadler said. "He's been telling me for a couple of years I need to hurry up and get there before he calls it quits."

Craig Stadler, who watched the tournament unfold on TV after being out of the country for most of the week, calls himself his son's biggest fan. When Craig Stadler won the 1982 Masters in a sudden-death playoff over Dan Pohl, he couldn't have imagined that one day he would get to play in the tournament with his then 2-year-old son, Kevin.

"I'm proud of him," the elder Stadler said. "I think it's been well earned, well deserved, and, you know, he did what he had to do.

"He had a few little bumps in the middle there, but he didn't let them get him down, which in the past was his forte which he got from me. He sucked it up and finished it. He didn't make a lot of birdies coming in, but Bubba made mistakes."

Based on some of their comments, there appears to be some strain in the relationship between the two Stadler men.

"I get along with him fine," Kevin said. "I'm just not as close with him now as I used to be, but he's still my dad. It's fine."

A week together in April at the Masters should bring them closer.