Twenty-three years ago, a young, blonde, mustachioed German came to the United States and teed it up as an unknown in his first PGA Tour event, the World Series of Golf.
His name was Bernhard Langer, and the only thing that distinguished him in people’s minds was that the week before at a PGA European Tour event, he had climbed up a tree by the 17th green to play a recovery shot onto the putting surface. The image had been replayed everywhere – including on a fledging cable network called ESPN. Otherwise, Langer was unknown. And yet the crowd lining the first tee at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, showed a certain affection for the foreigner, because after he hit his first tee shot (into the right rough) and headed down the fairway, they serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.” Langer had turned 24 that morning.
I saw Langer’s start that day from a unique perspective. I was his first PGA Tour caddie, and I remember clearly how focused and unflappable he was in his U.S. debut.
He went on to make quite an impact that week. After holing out for an eagle from 147 yards on the second hole on Sunday, he was tied for the lead and he managed to stay near the top until four bogeys over the last six holes dropped him to a tie for sixth and a paycheck of $14,500 – in the days when that was a lot of money.
He went back to Europe after the World Series and finished atop the Order of Merit for the 1981 season – the first of six times he would finish either No. 1 or No. 2 on the PGA European Tour’s money list.
At year’s end, a letter arrived at a modest house in the Bavarian town of Anhausen, Germany. Langer, the son of a bricklayer, grew up there and returned in the offseason when he wasn’t out skiing. The letter, postmarked from Augusta, Ga., USA, was Langer’s first invitation to play in the Masters.
By the time Langer played in the 1982 Masters, he had contracted his second career-threatening case of the yips, and he missed the cut at Augusta because of so many three-putts. It normally was a curse that struck golfers in their 50s, but Langer had been afflicted as a teen-ager and it threatened again to destroy his game.
When he returned to the United States for the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (the last time I caddied for him), his putting had become so bad that when he faced putts inside 6 feet, his playing partners, Ben Crenshaw and Bobby Clampett, couldn’t bear to watch. They discreetly turned their heads away rather than witness Langer butcher one short putt after another.
It hardly was the stuff of future stardom. More like talent gone to waste. But no one should ever underestimate the resolve and strength that have driven one of postwar Germany’s greatest athletes. He says he battled the yips four different times in his career, sometimes for three to nine months at a time.
“It’s been difficult,” he says. “There’s no beating around the bush.”
Along the way, he tried contorted methods for gripping the putter and was an early convert to the long putter. And never did he give up his faith or his work ethic. The faith part, an abiding sense of Christian spirituality, distinguished him in ways that he always embraced proudly and publicly.
The work ethic, too, served him well, as did his sense of precision. I got a taste of this the first day of practice rounds at Firestone, when I noticed that Langer’s equipment included a measuring wheel so he could guarantee accurate distances – the standard issue yardage books were not enough for his precise mind. Besides, he didn’t use yardages, he used meters. I had anticipated this, so when we got to the first fairway I proudly showed him the conversion tables I had used to translate 100 yards into 90 meters. Langer, being precise to the extreme, corrected me on the spot.
“You do not use .90,” he said. “It is .91.”
I redid my tables that night.
I still find it hard to accept that he is now 47 years old and very much a grizzled veteran – to the point where he is lending his veteran expertise as captain to the European Ryder Cup squad. It has been an amazing journey, with all the makings of a fairy tale:
“Once upon a time in a small German town, there was a boy who stumbled upon the game of golf and set out to make himself a great player.”
Today, Langer is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. His 42 European Tour victories make him one of the continent’s most enduring stars. His longevity is astonishing: at least one tournament victory each year on the European Tour from 1980 through 1997. He has won his country’s German National Open 12 times, including the first time, in 1974, as a 17-year-old amateur. His resume includes play on 10 Ryder Cup teams for Europe, five of them for winning teams, with an overall record of 21-15-6, including 4-3-3 in singles matches.
His two green jackets for Masters victories bear the labels 1985 and 1993, though in neither case did he get the credit he deserved. On both occasions, more attention was focused on who lost than who won. In 1985, it was Curtis Strange who squandered a lead with watery shots on the two par 5s coming in. And in 1993, it was Chip Beck’s layup at the 15th hole on Sunday (in retrospect, probably the right decision) that got more scrutiny than Langer’s victory.
The great irony of Langer’s competitive career is that for all his tournament victories, his most famous shot was a missed putt. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given his legendary woes on the greens. But as he stood over that final putt on the 18th green in the last match of the 1991 Ryder Cup at The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C.), the problem he faced was not his stroke but a big spike mark on the left edge, directly in the line of his 6-foot putt. Sink the putt, and the Europeans would retain the cup. Miss, and the Americans would win it.
Langer and his longtime caddie, Peter Coleman, agreed on the read and thought the only way to make the putt was to favor the left edge and go around the spike mark. The putt missed, and with that, the most nerve racking of all Ryder Cups culminated in a narrow U.S. victory.
Langer says he “felt disappointed” at missing. But he’s not the kind of person to be crushed over such a defeat. He’s been through too much in his life to be affected so dramatically. And this he proved the very next week, when he bounced back to win the German Masters.
Some say captaining a Ryder Cup team is overrated. Perhaps it is. But in the case of the European squad, their leader knows what it means to work hard, to bounce back and to persist. If only by example, he has set a worthy tone.