ENCOMPASS CHAMPIONSHIP: Couples’ birdie blitz didn’t faze Stadler

Craig Stadler’s first Champions Tour win in eight years seemed a foregone conclusion for awhile on Sunday. After all, he had a five-shot lead after playing his first six holes at North Shore Country Club in Glenview.

That lead wasn’t so safe, though.

A combination of Fred Couples’ birdies and Stadler’s own shaky play turned the Encompass Championship into a gritty battle down the stretch, and Stadler’s win wasn’t assured until he rolled in a breaking 12-foot par putt on the 18th green to complete a sand save.

“I finally made one that counted,’’ said a relieved Stadler, who hadn’t even contended in a tournament since 2007. He underwent hip replacement surgery in 2010 and also had problems with his back and foot, but health concerns were only part of his problem.

Stadler’s game, once good enough to win the 1982 Masters, soured until he paid a visit to California-based swing guru Billy Harmon when he was on the brink of quitting. Harmon revived Stadler’s career by changing his setup, his alignment and his grip. In other words, it was a complete makeover that isn’t done yet.

“It’s been all new stuff now,’’ said Stadler, who turned 60 earlier this month. “It’s been about a six-week process of totally changing my whole golf game, revamping everything. I’m not sure this is the fruition of it yet, because I putted just phenomenally well until the back nine today. If I keep putting well it doesn’t matter how I hit the ball.’’

For a week at least, that mindset worked.

Stadler dominated Chicago’s first Champions Tour event since 2002. He was in a three-way tie for the first round lead, was two strokes ahead after two rounds and was at the top of the leaderboard throughout the final 18.

He made birdies on his first two holes on Sunday and added two more at Nos. 5 and 6. Then he had some shaky moments before he posting a 71 and a winning 13-under-par 203 total for the 54 holes. Couples applied the most pressure, making birdies on his first three holes and getting to 7-under for the day on the 14th.

David Frost, Bernhard Langer, Mark O’Meara and Hinsdale’s Jeff Sluman – one of Stadler’s playing partners in the final threesome – all had chances to catch Stadler but none did. That quartet ended in a tie for third, one stroke behind Couples.

Couples had the best chance to catch Stadler. He arrived at the 18th tee one behind Stadler, who had made bogeys at Nos. 12, 14 and 15 and was struggling four groups back. Couples put his tee shot in the fairway but his 9-iron second at the par-4 wound up in a green-side bunker.

“A pretty simple shot,’’ said Couples. “I call it a shank. It wasn’t very good.’’

His bunker shot wasn’t very good, either. “I just hit it too soft,’’ said Couples, who couldn’t save par and settled for a 66 – best score of the day.

Even then Couples still had a chance, and headed for the practice range to warm up in the eventuality of a playoff. That looked like a distinct possibility when Stadler’s second at the 18th also found a bunker. He got out, to 12 feet, and faced a left-to-right downhill putt with a six-seven inch break.

“It looked really familiar to the putt I made a billion years ago (actually 1992) at Akron,’’ said Stadler. “I talked to myself — `you made that one, make this one, what the heck.’’’

The putt went in for the ninth Champions Tour win of Stadler’s career and first since his marriage to wife Jan three years ago. “Her whole family’s here, probably 10 of them, so it was very special,’’ Stadler said.

From a previous marriage Stadler has two sons – Kevin, who plays on the PGA Tour, and Chris, who played football at Lake Forest College. Sunday’s win earned Stadler $270,000 from a $1.8 million purse.

“Craig made a few bogeys down the stretch, but clearly he was the class of the field,’’ said Sluman. “He played great, hit hit some wonderful shots, putted great. That putt on 18 was really, really important to him, and the crowd was pulling for him. I couldn’t be happier for him.’’