ROCK OF AGES

An ap­pre­ci­a­ton of Bern­hard Langer and one of the great­est sea­sons in Cham­pi­ons Tour his­tory.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents 12/ 14 - ByJaimeDiaz

An ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Bern­hard Langer.

Bern­hard Langer anec­dotes can be fun, although they haven’t told us much about the man. There’s an oft-re­peated one about the metic­u­lous Ger­man, after be­ing given a yardage by a cad­die, ask­ing if the mea­sure­ment was taken from “the front of the sprin­kler head or the back.”

At the 1993 PGA Cham­pi­onship, Lee Trevino got tired of play­ing be­hind the man com­monly con­sid­ered the slow­est player in golf. Langer had a beard at the time, prompt­ing Trevino to crack to the gallery, “He was clean­shaven when we teed off.”

Golf writ­ers like to re­call a press con­fer­ence in the 1980s when Langer was asked who he thought was the great­est player from his then-golf-bereft home­land. After a con­sid­ered pause in which he weighed what could be taken as im­mod­esty against the ir­refutable facts, Langer an­swered, “It is I.”

What broke the room up was not so much the stilted phrase, but Langer’s de­liv­ery, ro­botic and über-se­ri­ous. Such char­ac­ter­is­tics some­what un­fairly re­main part of his im­age. Although it was re­veal­ing that he was also gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect.

That’s Langer, easy to par­ody. But the two-time Masters cham­pion is a sym­bol of logic, in­tegrity, re­li­a­bil­ity and, above all, find­ing so­lu­tions.

Ac­tu­ally, that pre­scrip­tion has strength­ened to the point that, at 57, Langer has be­come a phe­nom­e­non. Langer’s 2014 sea­son saw him win five times on the Cham­pi­ons Tour, cap­ture the sea­son-long Sch­wab Cup for a sec­ond time, and fin­ish in the top 10 in 18 of 21 events.

“I put Langer up against any­body on the PGA Tour,” said Colin Mont­gomerie of a top-10 ra­tio that not even Tiger Woods has matched. “It’s been an ex­cep­tional year of qual­ity and con­sis­tency.”

Langer’s post-50 play, which this year in­cluded a T-8 at the Masters, has been so good it in­vokes golf ’s un­of­fi­cial retroac­tive rule, in which a spec­tac­u­lar pres­ence en­hances what came be­fore. It’s true his green jack­ets were sup­ple­mented by only one other PGA Tour vic­tory, but Langer’s 42 Euro­pean Tour ti­tles (sec­ond only to Seve Balles­teros) are re­ceiv­ing more ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

The bet­ter Langer keeps play­ing, the more favourably he com­pares to his more cel­e­brated Euro­pean con­tem­po­raries. As one of the con­ti­nent’s Big Six – which also in­cluded Balles­teros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woos­nam and Jose Maria Olaz­a­bal – Langer was judged the least po­tent in his prime. He didn’t have the power of Balles­teros, Lyle and Woos­nam, wasn’t quite as pre­cise

as Faldo and lacked the short game and putting ge­nius of Olaz­a­bal. Rather, Langer’s strength was the unglam­orous one of man­age­ment, es­sen­tially Jack Nick­laus but with­out the big guns. But as the rest of the Big Six all lost their games in their 40s, it’s clear Langer pos­sessed some­thing spe­cial all along.

Even at Langer’s ad­vanced age, there’s a le­git­i­mate case that he’s ac­tu­ally play­ing the best golf of his life. Which points to Langer’s real legacy: golf’s great­est im­prover ever.

Says neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist and men­tal-game ex­pert Fran Piroz­zolo, who has been work­ing with Langer since 1984: “Bern­hard is now bet­ter at ev­ery skill in golf, ex­cept pos­si­bly strength and flex­i­bil­ity. It’s be­cause he is con­stantly eval­u­at­ing him­self and never be­ing closed to a new idea, and when it makes sense to him, he makes it is his own. He has that most im­por­tant gift for a golfer. He knows him­self.”

It’s the process Langer has used to over­come the yips at least three times in his long ca­reer and steadily make him­self a bet­ter put- ter (he was sec­ond on tour in 2014 in putting av­er­age). Sim­i­larly, he has stream­lined a once-quirky swing into near or­tho­doxy, mak­ing him a ball-striker so con­sis­tent that this year his mark of 78.35 per­cent greens hit in reg­u­la­tion is the high­est ever recorded on the reg­u­lar or Cham­pi­ons Tour.

“In their train­ing and prac­tice, most play­ers, most peo­ple, do what is com­fort­able,” Piroz­zolo says. “That ap­proach has been proved in­ef­fec­tive. Bern­hard is will­ing to be un­com­fort­able. Sci­ence has shown that hu­mans can pro­duce new brain neu­rons and in­ter­con­nec­tions even into their 80s, but only when learn­ing is hard and to some ex­tent painful. So you have to pay a price, and Bern­hard not only in­tu­itively un­der­stands this, he’s thirsty for it. If it isn’t hard, he’s sus­pi­cious of it.”

It’s an in­tense ap­proach, but Langer has avoided burnout by build­ing ex­tended breaks away from the game into his sched­ule, es­pe­cially in th­ese golden years. “When I come back, I’m hun­gry, ea­ger to put the work and the hours in and en­joy the game,” he says. “I en­joy be­ing com­pet­i­tive. I like the game of golf – I love it – and what greater set­ting than the Cham­pi­ons Tour?”

‘LANGER IS PLAY­ING THE BEST GOLF OF HIS LIFE. HE’S GOLF’S GREAT­EST IM­PROVER EVER.’

The record for most Cham­pi­ons Tour vic­to­ries be­longs to Hale Ir­win, who has 45, while Langer has 23. Ir­win had won 35 times at the age of 57, but it’s not im­prob­a­ble that the Ger­man can reel Ir­win in. “Peo­ple some­times un­der­es­ti­mate how much Bern­hard loves to beat peo­ple and win,” says his long­time cad­die, Terry Holt. “That has never less­ened.”

The son of a brick­layer who sur­vived World War II by jumping off a Rus­sian pris­oner train headed to Siberia and then liv­ing in the for­est for three months, Langer re­silience is leg­endary, and en­dures. Last year he threw away the Se­nior Bri­tish Open by dou­ble-bo­gey­ing the last hole at Royal Birk­dale and los­ing in a play­off to Mark Wiebe. This year he won the cham­pi­onship by 13 shots.

Although off the course Langer car­ries him­self with a seren­ity that is almost eerie, close as­so­ciates oc­ca­sion­ally get glimpses of the in­ner flinti­ness. Hours after win­ning the 1993 Masters, the re­laxed cham­pion came into the me­dia cen­tre to show his fam­ily the rows of golf writ­ers pro­duc­ing their re­ports. Notic­ing a few of the typ­ists look­ing up from their com­put­ers to stare at his at­trac­tive wife, Langer turned to­wards the of­fend­ers and in a dead tone that was pure Ter­mi­na­tor, said, “You can look, but don’t touch.” For a long mo­ment, no one spoke. Then Langer play­fully smiled, set­ting off a col­lec­tive burst of laugh­ter.

Turned out Langer knew very well how oth­ers see him. More ev­i­dence of be­ing a man who knows him­self.

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