By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
DULUTH, Ga. – Statistically, it was an easy hole. The 10th at TPC Sugarloaf yielded plenty of birdies and standing on the tee of the 560-yard par 5, Bernhard Langer had a one-shot lead. Esteban Toledo and Tom Pernice, Jr., were in pursuit.
The game was on, and Langer knew it. Langer had birdie on his mind.
Langer got it but not in a way he, nor anyone else, would have expected. Langer’s birdie 4 was such a reversal in fortunes – good for him, bad for the others – that the outcome of the inaugural Greater Gwinnett Championship was sealed right there and right then.
This was David and Goliath all over again. Langer is the most dominant golfer on the Champions Tour. The man the rest must always find a way to overcome if they are to win. On Sunday, they couldn’t find a way and Langer posted his 18th career Champions Tour victory in 108 starts. He shot a final-round 67 for a 206 total and three-stroke victory over Tom Lehman (67) and Pernice (70).
It was a vintage Langer performance on the Champions Tour. Grinding, quietly efficient and then, with everything on the line, a magnificence born from the urgency of the moment. On the eighth and ninth holes, he got it up-and-down for par. On the 10th, he pitched in from 40 feet for birdle. On the 11th, he saved par from a bunker – and always made it look easier than it should have been.
“I’m trying to make it easier,” Langer said. “When things look easy, it’s when you do things very well. I’m trying to make my swing better where even at my age, (when I) lose flexibility, lose some strength, I will have a swing I can repeat under all circumstances, make good contact. Improve my chipping, my putting.
“I have a lot more wisdom. I know what kind of shots I can hit, what I can do, what I can’t do. That makes up the lack of distance I might have or the lack of other things. There are a lot of very good over 50 golfers who can produce some very good results.”
Langer said the short-game excellence was due, in large part, for his preparations for last week’s Masters.
“I knew I would be chipping a lot at Augusta,” he said. “I practiced the short game.”
It’s also rewarding for Langer to know that at his age some parts of his game are getting better. If not better, certainly not deteriorating.
“It’s gratifying to see all the hard work that pays off,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t pay off. I’ve had stretches in my career where the more I practiced, the worse I get. Lately, the more I practice the better I get.
“At the same time I know I have limited years left. I’m 55 now. We all know when you get to that 60 mark it gets harder and harder. I’m trying to stay in shape, trying to still improve my technique to have a few more good years out here.
Toledo, the leader after 36 holes and seeking a career-defining victory, was the biblical David in the scenario. He’s one of the little guys on the Champions Tour. But he has a big heart and a combative spirit.
Toledo has conditional status based on the fact that two golfers who finished ahead of him at the qualifying tournament are not eligible until they turn 50 in a couple of months. Toledo is taking advantage of his opportunity and the best chance came at TPC Sugarloaf. But it wasn’t an easy task, not against Langer. It never is.
Langer drove into a fairway bunker on the 10th hole. He topped his second shot. The third bounced off and over the green.
When Toledo saw the topped shot, he went for broke – a 2-iron from 240 yards. The ball hit the green and bounced forward. Then the ball bounced some more … and more … before finally coming to a stop some 30 yards over the green. Toledo had relinquished a clear advantage.
Toledo’s third shot from behind the green didn’t reach the putting surface. His ball was just a stride inside Langer’s, with each facing a fourth shot. What happened next is that sometimes not-so-fine line between winning and losing.
Langer holed the wedge shot for birdie. With Langer watching closely, Toledo’s pitch scared the hole before stopping a roll short of matching the birdie. Langer smiled – not because Toledo had missed but because he thought Toledo had made it on top of his.
“I was pulling for him,” Langer said. “I thought he made it.”
The turnaround was “huge” – that’s Langer’s word.
“It looked like a one- or two-shot swing (in Toledo’s favor),” he said. “You never know. It ended up a one-shot swing in my favor.”
Langer had turned what appeared to be a wobble into triumph. Again.
“I missed three greens and was 1-under-par,” he said.
In short order after Langer’s birdie at the 10th, both Toledo, playing alongside him, and Pernice, in the group just ahead, found water hazards. Toledo made double bogeys on the next two holes. Pernice made double bogey at the 12th. Langer was firmly in control.
Roger Chapman, the third member of the Langer-Toledo group, said, “I just thought: Can you ever stop this guy?”
Langer became the first two-time winner on the Champions Tour this year. In six starts, he has five top-three finishes.
“He doesn’t get ruffled,” said Lehman, who will be Langer’s partner at the Legends of Golf. “He takes it all in stride. He’s got the best perspective of anybody who’s played the game, maybe ever. He’s extremely prepared. If things don’t work out, he says, ‘Things didn’t go my way.’ If they do, he says, ‘Yep, that’s what I planned.’ He rolls with things that come his way.’”
“Bernhard was very focused, like he is every week,” said Toledo, who shot a 75 to tie for seventh. “There’s nothing you can do. If I played great I don’t know if I would have caught him.”
Hey, David’s slingshot doesn’t always bring the big guy to his knees.