Bernhard Langer’s first PGA TOUR caddie, 42 years ago, knew he was different
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I wish I could say I was the reason for his success.
Written by Bradley Klein @PGATOUR
Bernhard Langer stands tied with Hale Irwin’s record for career victories on the PGA TOUR Champions with 45. There’s a good chance that Langer will surpass that soon. Even at age 65, Langer is showing no signs of slowing down.
If – when – he becomes the winningest player on the PGA TOUR Champions, he will “simply” be adding to an astonishing career that began in a small, rural German town at age 15 and has led him to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Along the way, he has rung up 121 professional victories, winning on every continent where the game is contested, without pause since 1980, including two Masters titles and 11 senior majors. There are also the prestigious lines on his resume regarding the Ryder Cup. He played on 10 teams, six of them that took the Cup home, and successfully captained the European team in 2004 at Oakland Hills.
At least I can lay claim to having gotten Langer started on the U.S. segment of his astonishing career. That was late August 1981, at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, home that year to the World Series of Golf and its then mind-boggling total purse of $400,000 with $100,000 going to the winner. I was a graduate student but spent my summers looping on the PGA TOUR for the likes of players like Don Pooley, Lon Hinkle, Fred Marti and Charles Coody – golfers on the upside or downside of their competitive careers but, frankly, not yet – or no longer – at the apex.
It was the greatest job a 20-something could have: seeing the country, immersed in the game I loved, inside the ropes at everything from the B.C. Open to the U.S. Open, and starting to make connections in the golf media that I needed as an aspiring golf writer.
I was also fluent in German, thanks to my doctoral studies. So when I saw that based on Langer’s position atop the European Tour money list that season he had qualified for Firestone, I leapt into action. With contacts I had made through his management firm at IMG, I arranged with Langer’s European-based agent to convey my interest in caddying for the young German star.
By the time I got to Akron on the Monday of tournament week Langer was already an item of curiosity in the golf world. Not because he had just finished second in The Open Championship to Bill Rogers or two weeks later won the German Open. Over the weekend, just before flying to the States, he had been filmed during the third round of the Benson & Hedges in England climbing up a tree alongside the 17th green to play a shot out from 15 feet up when his ball nestled in a limb. The deft recovery for bogey helped him eventually to place second, a shot behind Tom Weiskopf. No one was talking about the winner. The industry buzz was all about the stylish, wavy-haired blonde in white sweater who dared an adventurous recovery.
It took a bit of negotiating with Langer before we got started on the course. For one thing, my German language skills did not approach the fluency required to caddie under pressure. For another, I was also excited, having rewritten my yardage book to accommodate the conversion to meters by marking down everything by 10 percent, or .90, so that a 200-yard shot would be expressed as 180 meters. “No,” he said tersely. “It’s .91.” In other words, 200 yards would be 182. That precise.
From the moment we got on the golf course, everything he did marked him as different than the others I had caddied for or been paired with on TOUR. I had a yardage book but he had this measuring wheel I had to lug round with the golf bag so he could track distances on his own. The utility of this was confirmed on the back nine when I gave him a distance of 160 to the hole and he hit his iron shot a few feet beyond the flag. After wheeling it off he turned to me and said, “it was 158.”
Everything Langer did seemed focused, intent. Forget about playing a money game in practice. He was the first TOUR-quality player I saw who in practice rounds played to sides of fairways with different clubs: a driver down the left side, a driver down the right, then a 3-wood 20 yards short of the drive on the right, followed by a 3-wood 20 yards short down the left. He did the same thing on short shots around greens. He’d drop a few balls, hit different shots with different clubs, and watch the balls roll out. In between holes he’d go to the golf bag and pull out this snack bag of crunchy granola and nuts and fruit.
Hale Irwin on Bernhard Langer chasing his wins record
Thursday, the first round, turned out to be his 24th birthday. I recall we were paired that day with Greg Norman, who was pretty charismatic back then and already an established star. Langer wasn’t fazed. Or at least he didn’t betray any nervousness. While he had worn pretty unremarkable clothes for the two days prior, for that first round he showed up in a flashy outfit with the Bogner brand insignia that told me he was capable of showing off a little – and that he had a clothing contract.
He made an impressive U.S. debut by striping his opening drive. As we walked off the tee the crowd broke into a “Happy Birthday” serenade.
Langer played well all week. The last day we were paired with Tom Kite in the next-to-last group with a chance to make a run. On the par-5 second hole, Langer drove into a bunker, pitched out sideways, and had 147 meters to the flag. Seven-iron, good swing, ball landed well onto the green, rolled up, hit the pin and went in. Eagle. Bingo, a two-shot leap up the leaderboard.
Alas, Langer bogeyed four of the last six holes to finish in a tie for sixth place. That yielded him $14,200. At $200 for the week plus 3 percent, that earned me a payout of $650 – with Langer rounding up my pay slightly as a bonus. We left on good terms, and I came away impressed with his demeanor in how he handled the disappointment of those four bogeys down the stretch.
Two weeks later I was back to my studies, this time in Germany, studying at the Free University of Berlin. While there a magazine assignment came my way – a profile of up-and-coming star Bernhard Langer. By then I had his contact information, wrote him at his family house in rural Anhausen – midway between Boon and Frankfurt. He agreed to meet me there in mid-December so I could see him in his element.
He had just gotten back from a ski vacation. An invite to the 1982 Masters had just arrived in the mail. I sat down with him and his parents in this very modest cottage home and had dinner at their kitchen table, managing to make conversation in their Bavarian dialect and taking note of the humble surrounds. It was a far cry from the World Series of Golf. But it gave me insight into his modesty, his deep sense of religious faith, his rootedness in family and his determination to make his way in the world. He agreed to let me caddie for him again if the timing worked, though he added that it would help if I were a little less nervous as his caddie. Point well taken.
I didn’t loop for him at that Masters. I was teaching then, and in any case Augusta National did not let the players use their own caddies – a ban that was lifted for the 1983 Masters. Langer missed the cut by a shot, stayed on the next week to play the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town, where he tied for 59th place and won $666. But we did get reunited at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982. Unfortunately by then, his second bout with the yips had emerged. While he played exceptionally well tee-to-green, and his long putting was fine, when he got within 10 feet of the hole there was no telling what would happen, nor what you were even looking at by way of a stroke. It got so bad that by the 13th hole of the first round, our playing partners, Ben Crenshaw and Bobby Clampett, both had to politely turn away and avoid looking at Langer’s attempt at shorter putts. I felt obliged out of solidarity to watch. As painful as it was for me, I knew it was much more painful for Langer. He missed the cut by eight shots, and that was that of my caddie career with him. I only caddied a little after that, and never with anyone of his ball-striking ability.
We have stayed in touch a little in subsequent years. On the very few times I tried to reach him for an interview he was always kind enough to respond on his day off. I looked upon his two longtime caddies, Peter Coleman, followed by Terry Holt, with a bit of envy. They have had the pleasure of working for one of golf’s longest-running success stories, one of golf’s most disciplined, rule-abiding, focused gentlemen. When controversy arose after the USGA banned the anchored putting grip starting in 2016 and Langer adjusted accordingly, he would occasionally get accused of violating the rules with his makeshift grip to fend off the yips, I knew he would never knowingly flout the rules.
It is said of golf that all you need to do is play a single round with someone to determine all you need to know about their character. The same could be said of caddying for someone. Langer made an immediate impression on me 42 years ago. It has been obvious ever since that he has made the same effect on the entire golf world.
Bradley S. Klein is a veteran golf writer and author of 10 books on course design. A former PGA TOUR caddie, he was architecture editor of Golfweek for over two decades and is now a freelance journalist and course design consultant. Follow Bradley Klein on Twitter.