ENCOMPASS CHAMPIONSHIP: Stadler’s a surprise leader entering final round

ENCOMPASS CHAMPIONSHIP: Stadler’s a surprise leader entering final round

Who would have expected Craig Stadler to be the 36-hole leader of the Encompass Championship?

Well, certainly not Craig Stadler.

The veteran long ago nicknamed the Walrus hasn’t won a tournament since 2004 and hasn’t even been in contention in one since 2007. Three months ago he was on the brink of ending his long career as a touring pro. On Sunday, though, he will take a two-stroke lead into the final round of the $1.8 million Encompass Championship – the new Champions Tour event being conducted at North Shore Country Club in Glenview.

Finishing with darkness setting in on Friday, Stadler overcame a 3-hour 28-minute rain delay to post a 67, good enough for a share of the first round lead. He followed that with a scorching 65 on Saturday, a round in which he holed a 40-foot bunker shot en route to a 32 on the back nine.

Another usual back-in-the-pack player, Bob Tway, matched Stadler’s 65 and Hinsdale’s Jeff Sluman strung four birdies on the back nine en route to shooting a 66. They are two strokes shy of Stadler’s 12-under-par 132 total going into the final 18.

Stadler, the 1982 Masters champion, appears a man on a mission.

“(Golf) hasn’t been fun in a long time,’’ he said. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow, but it’s fun to make putts – and I’ve made a boatload of putts.’’

So what caused the sudden transformation? Sessions with swing guru Billy Harmon certainly helped. A desperate Stadler went to see him in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I walked out on the back range and Billy’s standing there,’’ recounted Stadler. “He said, `What are we doing?’ I said `You’ve got two days to either fix it or I’m done, very simple. He looked at me and said `Let’s go!’’’

And off they went. Stadler doesn’t think his game has been completely fixed yet, but quitting isn’t a consideration any more.

“Shooting in the 60s is a lot better than shooting 78s and 82s and 76s and 79s, which is what I’ve been shooting off and on for the last four-five years,’’ he said. “It got to the point, one, it was no fun, and two, it was getting to be embarrassing.’’

Tway’s 65 was a bit more spectacular than Stadler’s – at least at the end. He shot 6-under 30 on the back side and on the last eight holes he went eagle-par-par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par-birdie. The sizzling stretch ended when a 30-foot putt dropped.

Like Stadler, Tway – best known for holing a bunker shot on the last hole to take the 1986 PGA title from Greg Norman – was having his own frustrations before arriving at North Shore. They mirrored what Stadler has been going through.

“My game has not been what it should be,’’ he said. “Today was better. There has been some frustration, but I’m a whole lot more mellow now than I was when I was on the other (PGA) Tour.’’

Both Stadler and Tway won a major title in their PGA Tour days and both have sons named Kevin who are touring pros. Kevin Stadler in on the PGA Tour and Kevin Tway, the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, is playing on the Web.com circuit.

Stadler and Tway both are big fans of North Shore, an old-style course that some of the current Champions Tour players last tested in the 1983 U.S. Amateur.

“That shows how old we are, but we love it,’’ said Tway. “When everyone found out we were going to get to come here we were all excited. The course is in unbelievable shape.’’

“It’s probably got the best fairways I’ve seen ever,’’ said Stadler. “I played here a couple times when I was in college way back when. I absolutely love it.’’

Sluman, a leader in getting the Champions Tour back for the first time since 2002, made eight birdies while playing in the last group of the day with retired Bear Brian Urlacher. Urlacher chipped in twice, which was more eye-catching that Sluman’s steadiness.

“Just a good solid round, and I kept myself out of trouble,’’ said Sluman. “We just felt it was long overdue to get an event back in Chicago. We’re excited to be here.’’

The duel for the $270,00 first prize, to be awarded after Sunday’s final round, figures to be a tight one but the tournament within the tournament — the two-man pro-am team event that ended on Saturday – certainly wasn’t. The duo of pro Steve Pate and amateur Lee Tenzer posted a 25-under-par score for 36 holes and won by five shots.