The Curious Case of Bernhard Langer
The PGA TOUR Champions' top player continues to break records, dominate and defy time at age 59
November 03, 2016
By Bob McClellan, Special to PGATOUR.COM
Editor's note: This story was published prior to the 2016 Dominion Charity Classic, the second of three Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs events. Langer finished T6 and heads to the Charles Schwab Cup Championship ranked No. 1 in the points standings.
Father Time is unbeaten in match play.
The fact Bernhard Langer has reached the back nine with him all square is astonishing.
At a time when some of his compatriots on PGA TOUR Champions are getting a little shorter off the tee, a little longer in the waist, a little shakier on the greens and a touch grayer under their sponsored visors, the 59-year-old German star somehow seems only to be getting better. He is the over-50 circuit’s Benjamin Button.
Langer missed last week’s first event of the Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs with a balky knee (he will tee it up at this week’s Dominion Charity Classic) and still leads the Schwab Cup standings by a million points. That’s the kind of 2016 season he has had. He has won four times, including a pair of majors. He has posted 16 top-10s in 19 events (his three non-top 10s were two T-11s and a T-13). In 62 rounds on the PGA TOUR Champions this year he has shot 71 or better 59 times. He leads the tour in total driving, greens in regulation, putting average and, not surprisingly given the previous three, birdie average and scoring average.
Still not getting the picture? The PGA TOUR Champions is Shangri-Langer. He is on the verge of winning the Arnold Palmer Award (money list leader) for the eighth time in the past nine years, the Byron Nelson Award (lowest scoring average) for the third consecutive year, and the Jack Nicklaus Award (player of the year), also for the third year in a row.
His hold on the money-list lead is tighter than a lie at a Florida muni in August. He sits more than $1 million in front of second place Colin Montgomerie; 28 players are within a $1 million of Montgomerie.
As he chases his fourth Charles Schwab Cup (no, no one else has won as many of them as he has) and first under its new playoff format which is based on the PGA TOUR’s FedExCup, this question comes to mind: How is any of this even possible? Is Langer at 59 as good as Langer at 27, when he won his first Masters? Is he, dare it be asked, even better?
“That’s a difficult one to answer,” Langer said. “We’re not playing with the same technology. Now I’m using a driver that’s a lot longer and more forgiving than a persimmon-headed, steel-shaft driver from 30 years ago. It’s tough to compare.
“Let’s just put it this way: There wouldn’t be a huge difference.”
Exactly. There wouldn’t be. Younger Langer was the first No. 1 in the World Rankings. He was wildly talented, but he could be impatient. He would make birdies in bunches then miss a couple of fairways and get in trouble. And his putting stroke then, Vintage Langer will tell you, couldn’t always be trusted.
Vintage Langer might lose a few holes to his younger self, but he’d keep grinding. He’d hit fairway after fairway, green after green. He’d frustrate Younger Langer with his relentlessness. There’s no doubt he’d be right there at the end.
“I’m definitely wiser than I was. I know what’s good for me and not good for me,” Langer said. “When I was younger I would play a lot of tournaments in a row, wear myself out, get impatient. Now I know if I play two or three in a row I need time off. I used to practice every day. Now I put them away for a few days so when I come out I’m actually eager to play and eager to practice.”
Langer “puts them away?” This may come as a shock to some players on the PGA TOUR Champions, who surely view him as some sort of golfing cyborg from the future. But Langer takes interest in almost anything that involves physical activity and/or has an outcome. The knee injury that kept him out of last week’s PowerShares QQQ Championship was an old one that Langer said flared up because of a spin class he took. He also enjoys bicycle riding, walking, snow skiing, working out and getting in a massage here and there.
“I used to play a lot of soccer but I can’t do that anymore,” Langer said in a rare nod to Father Time. “I get hurt every time I play. My mind still thinks I’m in a 20- or 30-year-old body, and I’m not. I go for things I shouldn’t be going for. I’m too competitive. I used to play beach volleyball, soccer, tennis, but I’m slowing down dramatically with those things. Now I just do what I can handle without hurting myself.”
And – gasp! – there’s the tiniest bit of couch potato in there somewhere.
“I do enjoy watching sports on television,” Langer said. “I enjoy soccer, American football, most sports. … I’ve lived in Florida for over 30 years. So I’ve been supporting the Miami Dolphins, sad to say. It hasn’t been much fun lately.”
It hasn’t been much fun because Langer likes to win. He won his first Green Jacket in 1985 at the age of 27, and he donned his second in 1993. He made 19 consecutive cuts at the Masters before the streak ended in 2003.
Langer, a devoted husband and father of four, has played in every Masters since 1984 with the exception of 2011, when he was sidelined by thumb surgery. He missed six cuts in a row from 2006 through 2012, but what’s interesting/unheard of/Benjamin Button-ish is he recently has rounded back into form at Augusta National.
That’s right; he still can play with the young guns on the PGA TOUR when it comes to tiptoeing through the azaleas and knowing the dogwoods from the doglegs. He has three top 25s at the Masters in the past four years, including a T8 in 2014 and a T24 this year that saw him enter Sunday in the next-to-last group before carding a final-round 79.
“I’ve spent a lot of time there studying the course,” Langer said. “I know where to go and not to go.
“Augusta used to be a course where you didn’t have to drive it straight but if you could control your irons and have imagination on and around the greens, you could score well. And I think I was always fairly decent at that.”
Langer found himself at 1 under after the third round this year. Only one player shot lower in the third round. He was tied for third, two shots behind 22-year-old Jordan Spieth, who was bidding to tie Langer with a second Masters victory.
Langer had been paired with world No. 1 Jason Day on Saturday. The PGA TOUR Champions standard bearer shot 70; the 28-year-old Aussie shot 71.
“That was just so impressive to watch,” Day told the media. “I could tell how gritty he is and how much of a competitor he is.”
Spieth, who hadn’t even been born when Langer won his second Masters, had this to say about his elder after the third round: “I would say I’m surprised except for doesn’t he win most every tournament on the (PGA TOUR Champions)? We watch him all the time on TV, and he’s a guy that certainly knows how to close and close here.”
Englishman Terry Holt has been Langer’s caddie for his entire run on the PGA TOUR Champions. He said the buzz around his boss after the third round at Augusta National was on a different level, but it was the result of a concerted effort over the past few years.
“He has a comfort level with being a winner out here (on the PGA TOUR Champions), being a Hall of Famer,” Holt said. “He goes to Augusta with a belief that he can still win it.
“About five years ago we said let’s play to win there like we do every week on the PGA TOUR Champions. That has made a difference.”
Langer doesn’t tee it up anywhere just to cash a check. He comes to win, no matter the tour or the tournament. But this was uncharted territory. Not any of golf’s hallowed names – Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player – had flirted with a green jacket at this advanced age. Langer was in position to become the oldest Masters champion by 12 years and the oldest winner of a major championship by 10 years.
“Of course you think you can win, but you don’t focus on that,” Langer said. “You focus on shooting a low round, do the best you can.
“Augusta has gotten so long. It’s a very difficult course for me to compete with the young kids. I hit 3 or 4 more clubs than they do. They reach the par-5s in two and I can’t. But if I drive well and putt well I can still compete, even on a course like that.”
At his core that is what Langer is all about. If there is a game that involves winning sign him up and get out of his way.
“I’m a very competitive person,” Langer said. “If you play Ping Pong with me I want to beat you. Tennis, cards, whatever. That’s just my nature. I want to the best I can be.”
As much as anything else it is that competitive desire, the fire that burns within that keeps Langer playing at a level that the vast majority of PGA TOUR Champions players find difficult to maintain once they hit 55. Langer has won 14 times since turning 55; he won 15 times from ages 50 through 54.
“One of the primary ways at his age that he has done this is he still believes he can improve,” said Holt, a professional caddie for 40 years. “And his record proves he has done that. Is he hitting it farther? No. Is every aspect better? No. Has he found a way to post scores throughout those years? Yes.
“His success the last seven years has been built on his total driving. He’s now one of the top total drivers. He was always a great iron player, always had a great short game. His improved play is based on putting it in the fairway. You put his iron game with his driving now and you have what he has shown the past seven years.”
Langer is on the same page with his caddie when it comes to his play off the tee.
“I’m a much better driver of the golf ball than I used to be,” Langer said. “I hit more fairways and more greens, and that’s what held me back in my 20s and 30s from winning a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship. My driver wasn’t straight enough, and my putting was not quite as good.
“Now, because of the driving, I’m hitting more greens in regulation.”
Holt said in his opinion the only other player in PGA TOUR Champions history as driven to win week in and week out was Hale Irwin. Not coincidentally, Irwin, now 71, is the only player with more victories (45) on PGA TOUR Champions than Langer’s 29. They are tied in senior majors victories with seven, one behind Jack Nicklaus.
Tom Lehman is a longtime friend of Langer’s. The two have partnered in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf event over the years. In fact, Lehman became the 13th player in history to win in his PGA TOUR Champions debut when he teamed with Langer to win the event (then in Savannah, Georgia) in 2009. They finished tied for eighth this year (coincidentally four spots behind Irwin and Wes Short Jr.).
Lehman has seen Langer’s game over the long haul, and one thing he admires about his friend and rival is his approach to the game.
“You cannot stay competitive if you’re not completely focused,” Lehman said. “In that way he’s pushing everybody out here. Are you willing to be as dedicated and as focused as he is?
“He has no chinks in the armor. He putts well, drives well, chips well. He thinks well. He’s passionate. He’s courageous. He’s a complete player.”
For American fans, Langer burst on the scene in the '85 Masters. Born in Anhausen, Germany, on Aug. 27, 1957, he was the son of a brick layer and the youngest of three children.
Golf found him because of his brother, who caddied at the Augsburg Golf Club, a course about five miles from their home. Little brother asked to tag along, and it was love at first divot. The Langers didn’t have a lot of money, and golf was very exclusive in Germany in the 1960s. There were only about a hundred courses, and none of them was public. But caddies were allowed to practice and play when there was no one on the course, so Langer began to hone his game as a youngster.
He knew by 14 he wanted his life to revolve around golf, and he figured the only way for him to do that was to become a golf instructor. He finished high school at 15 and moved the 50 miles to Munich to begin a career as an assistant pro.
“I watched the pro where I was caddying, and I thought it would be great to help other people improve their game,” Langer said. “I learned to give lessons and run golf tournaments and all of the other things. I also kept improving my own game and joined the European Tour when I was 18.”
Langer won 42 times on the European Tour, second only to Seve Ballesteros. He played on 11 Ryder Cup teams. He was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2002 and has just kept on winning.
When a player wins as often as Langer has it really becomes the only thing. He was in a playoff on the PGA TOUR at age 49 with Jim Furyk and Rory Sabbatini at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Holt believes had Langer, then 49, won he might have put off the PGA TOUR Champions and continued on the PGA TOUR. But Sabbatini won with a birdie on the first playoff hole.
Later in 2007, after his 50th birthday, Langer won on the PGA TOUR Champions. He asked Holt which tour he should play in 2008.
“I said I think you can still make the Ryder Cup team and all of that, but he said, ‘I’ve done all of that,’” Holt said. “‘What I enjoy the most in golf is winning.’ Once he got the taste of winning out here and the good, comfortable travel schedule … that helped him decide that the PGA TOUR Champions was his future.”
How much longer can the PGA TOUR Champions remain a part of his future? Lehman might have some insight. He recalled traveling to play at the German Masters in 1995 at the behest of tournament host Langer.
“I can remember looking out of my hotel window and in the back yard of the hotel there was this little old lady running around kicking a soccer ball with Bernhard’s kids,” Lehman said. “She looked about 75. Turns out it was Bernhard’s mom.
“So not only does he have the work ethic and discipline, but he has great genes.”
Father Time certainly has a match on his hands with Benja … er, Bernhard Langer.
“I’ll be the first to know, I would think, when my game deteriorates,” Langer said. “If it gets to a level where I don’t enjoy it anymore and am finishing 40th or 50th and I can’t compete or can’t finish in the top 10 and have a chance to win a tournament, that’s time to hang up the clubs.
“We’ll see. I can’t tell the future and I don’t want to. I’m going to enjoy this as long as it lasts.”