2006: Inspired Pairing
Jim Langley says he is the luckiest guy in the world, and in many ways
it is easy to understand why he feels that way. l After all, Langley played on an NCAA championship basketball team and competed on the PGA Tour. In 1971, he became only the third head professional in the history of the Cypress Point Club and stayed there until his retirement at the end of 2005. l And as that career came to a close, he enjoyed a series of fabulous fetes, including one thrown by his old employers at which Langley, 68, received the ultimate going-away present – an honorary membership to Cypress.
That made him only the second person, after President Eisenhower, to receive such a tribute from the club.
But sometimes you have to wonder what the 6-foot-4 Langley is talking about. His long legs throb in constant pain, a result of a 1987 car accident that led to more than a dozen operations. His right arm, the one he calls his “quiet partner,” was rendered all but useless after that crash, meaning he has been relegated to playing one-handed since.
Oh, and then there was the sense of vulnerability and humiliation that came in the wake of his near-death experience.
“I worried I had lost some of my manhood,” Langley recalls. “Here I am, with only one good arm and two bad legs, wondering how I can protect my wife and children.”
But even as he recalls that gut-wrenching emotion, Langley is quick to reaffirm his belief in his good fortune.
“I’m lucky in that the accident made me appreciate each day, and the many great things in my life,” he says. “It also gave me a chance to make a positive example and show you can overcome things. I have
never asked, ‘Why me?’ In fact, I have always felt I was better equipped to handle something like this than most because I have my faith and family, and because I have Cypress Point.”
Langley’s departure from Cypress, whose Alister MacKenzie-designed layout has supplanted Pine Valley atop Golfweek’s 2006 list of America’s Best Classic Courses, represents the loss of one of golf’s great gentlemen.
But happily, it also signifies the start of something new for a man who plans to spend more time with his wife of 45 years, Lou, as he continues his volunteer work for his church in nearby Carmel and gets more involved in interests such as junior golf and The First Tee.
Langley says he wants to give something back. But to anyone who knows Jim Langley, the notion of his being any more generous is ludicrous. Consider, for example, that he has never charged for a golf lesson at Cypress. In addition, a number of caddies say he has saved their lives by providing emotional and financial support in their battles with drug and alcohol addictions. For years, he has given his loopers sweaters and shirts when they could not afford them. Then, there is the gracious way he has long made golfers feel so welcome at one of the most exclusive retreats in the world.
In fact, his generosity is such that men and women of even the steeliest resolve find their eyes welling with tears when they talk about him.
Jim absolutely loves people, and he has an unselfish and heartfelt concern for them that moves us all,” says Cypress member Sam Reeves, his voice cracking slightly as he speaks. “He also has a life of joy, which is remarkable when you think of what he has gone through. Joy, you understand, is different from happiness. Joy is an inward peace, a sense of contentment and acceptance of life and what it gives you. And while pain may be inevitable, suffering is a choice. Jim has pain, a lot of pain, but he chooses not to suffer. Rather, he gives, and he inspires as a result.”
When he was growing up, Langley had no idea he would inspire anyone. Born in Denver, the youngest of four children, he moved with his family to Salinas, Calif., five years later, living a middle-class existence in what was then a small agricultural town. It wasn’t until he turned 13 that Langley picked up golf, using left-handed clubs (even though he is right-handed) because his father, an accountant, played that way
and the family could not afford a set for Jim.
The venue for their games was the Salinas Country Club, which in those days was only a nine-hole course.
In time, Langley got right-handed clubs, and he began competing on the high school team, soon posting scores in the 70s. But he dropped the game when he headed off to the University of California at Berkeley in 1954, as basketball became his sport of choice.
He played hoops all four years at Berkeley, the last two as a forward on a varsity team coached by the legendary Pete Newell. Langley did not start for Newell but served primarily as a defensive specialist off the bench. He played a lot his junior and senior years, and had the fortuity of meeting a cheerleader at that time named Louetta Vienop, who would later become his wife. In 1959, Cal won the national championship, beating a West Virginia team led by Jerry West. In the semifinals, Cal defeated Cincinnati and its star, Oscar Robertson.
After leaving Berkeley, Langley served in the Marines before going to work as a sales representative for International Paper, peddling corrugated boxes to agricultural produce outfits. The couple lived in Oakland, and Langley occasionally headed to the golf course for recreation. One day, he happened to have a good round with a friend, who suggested he think about playing professionally. The proposition seemed far-fetched, as the 28-year-old Langley had never taken a golf lesson before, and he and Lou had just started a family, with eldest son Brad, now 41, arriving in 1964 and Brett, 40, shortly thereafter. (Brennon, 36, and Bryan, 33, would come later.)
But his friend found a sponsor, and Langley took a six-month leave of absence from IP, playing in amateur events as he worked with an instructor before heading to Florida in fall 1965 for the first PGA Tour Qualifying School. And amazingly, he managed to secure his card, with a nervy up-and-down from a bunker on the final hole.
“Take a moment and think about what Jim did,” says two-time PGA Championship winner Dave Stockton, a longtime friend who asked Langley to be godfather to his youngest son, Ronnie. “Q-School was the first professional tournament he had ever played, and he made it through.”
However, Langley fared poorly on the Tour, winning $301 in 1966. He regained his card the following fall
and stayed out a few more years, even managing a second place finish at the old Azalea Open.
But he soon determined that was no way to care for an ever-growing family.
He tried teaching for six months, in a job Stockton helped him get at Westlake Village in Thousand Oaks, Calif., but quickly learned he did not want to do that full time. So Langley moved his family back to Salinas, taking a job loading lettuce into trucks and cauliflower onto train cars, as he looked into other employment options, among them his old job at International Paper.
One day he saw a newspaper story about the retirement of Henry Puget, who had joined Cypress Point as head professional in 1931. Almost on a whim, Langley submitted a resume and application for the job. The interview process entailed perhaps a half-dozen meetings – and rounds of golf – with club officials. Then Cypress president Charles de Bretteville called the man who had never been a head pro anywhere and worked only half a year at any sort of golf operation and said, “Langley, I am going to take a chance on you.”
Langley easily settled in to life at Cypress, happily servicing a membership roll that had its share of celebrities, business moguls and political leaders, such as Bing Crosby and former Secretary of State George Shultz. He also got to play regularly, and in summer 1978 carded a 63, equaling an official course record then held by Ben Hogan and Bob Lunn (and equaled some years later by Adam Scott).
Things came crashing down in fall 1987. That’s when Langley was driving former club president Bill Borland to a pro-am match at the San Francisco Golf Club late one afternoon. A faulty fuel gauge caused them to run out of gas, and Langley got out to push the car in the dark with Borland at the wheel. Just as they arrived at the exit ramp, they were struck by another auto that was traveling more than 50 mph. The impact momentarily trapped Langley’s legs between both cars’ bumpers and then threw him off the side of the road.
“I just remember waking up in the hospital,” Langley recalls. “My legs were broken and swollen to four or five times their normal size. I didn’t think much about my arm, but I learned later on I had pretty extensive nerve damage there.”
Langley spent two months in a Bay Area facility and also a spell in a New Orleans hospital, where doctors tried unsuccessfully to restore some function to his right arm through a nerve-grafting procedure. And it took about a year before he was able to go back to work.
“Of course, I was worried about my job,” Langley says. “But my staff picked up the slack when I was gone, and my members gave me a lot of support.”
Upon his return to Cypress, Langley showed he had retained his talented eye as a teacher, his gracious manner as a host and his deft business sense as a merchandiser and a manager of people. In time, he also started to play again, one-handed and standing on the left side of the ball, improving enough to shoot in the mid-80s.
Club insiders have long averred that Langley initially received the head pro job there because his stout character elevated him above all other candidates. And that attribute only seemed to be more apparent when he came back.
“It’s as if he grew even further in stature as a result of his tragedy,” says Dr. Tom Loss, a Seattle dentist and U.S. Golf Association rules official who is also a Cypress member. “Being around Jim was like going to church; he was that good and inspiring a person.”
CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz agrees.
“It’s like I’m in the presence of a saint when I am with Jim,” Nantz says. “He has an aura that affects anyone who comes into contact as well as a unique appreciation for humanity.”
It’s interesting to hear those references to religion because Jim Langley truly is a pious man. He developed that in his youth, thanks mostly to his mother, who snuck her children to the local Catholic church on Sundays despite fierce opposition of her Southern Baptist husband (who never attended the weddings of any of his children because they all took place in Catholic places of worship). And not surprisingly, his devotion grew drastically in the years after his accident, as he had to dig deep to persevere in a world that had suddenly turned very cruel.
Men and women of faith often seek solace in places of quiet beauty, and Jim Langley took walks on Cypress Point almost every afternoon he worked there, sometimes carrying a short iron or maybe fondling a rosary in his pocket. He ambled along fairways and over dunes. He stood at ocean side promontories and listened to the sea lions bark. He said prayers for his friends and after the accident gave thanks to God for what Langley called his second chance.
He also asked for the wisdom to know how to be a better person, and to be a blessing to others in the way they have been to him. And whenever he got to the front of the 15th tee, he dropped a single golf ball into the ravine there, in memory of an old caddie and friend who died five years ago (and delighted in finding balls in that spot).
Today, Langley takes those walks as a Cypress member. And he continues to stop at many of the same spots, to say the prayers and to give thanks.
But those who know Jim Langley say they are the ones who should be giving thanks – for his enduring compassion and deep humility, and for teaching them things that are far more important than how to hit a 3-iron.