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