At 57, Bernhard Langer looks to crash British Open party

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Everything you need to know about the competitive nature of Bernhard Langer can be encapsulated in this one short story. In the late 1990s, the European Tour staged a skills competition that included a long-drive contest at Wentworth Club in England ahead of the BMW PGA Championship. As Langer recounted, “I’m not the tallest, not the strongest, and I was already in my 40s, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to win.”

But let’s be serious, Langer had virtually no chance. Even in his salad days, he lacked a cannon. Yet in the era of the long ball, Langer still managed to prosper, as he did in the contest. He outsmarted the competition, going to one of the equipment trucks and ordering a driver with an extra-long shaft to go with the longest ball the company made. “I don’t see the point in doing anything unless you try to do it the very best you can,” he said.

When Langer won the competition, one of the Tour’s reputed bombers examined his driver and exclaimed, “No wonder.”

“It’s not all in here,” Langer said, making a muscle.

Langer’s will to win always was among his strongest assets. He won the Masters twice, serving Wedding soup and spaetzle and other German delicacies the first time (“It was the best German food I’ve ever had in the United States,” he said) and a traditional Thanksgiving dinner the second time (“It’s my favorite meal over here,” he said. “I wanted to give thanks.”)

He was the first World No. 1 in 1985 when the Official World Golf Ranking was introduced. He won 42 times on the European Tour and on six different continents. He was a key cog in Europe’s Ryder Cup success during his 10 appearances as a player (1981-2002), and captained his side to victory in 2004. His bas-relief bronze plaque hangs in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and since turning 50, he’s dominated the Champions Tour with 24 titles, tied for the fourth-most all time. In short, he’s done it all.

Which led to this question: At age 57, what’s left for you to accomplish in golf? Langer may have a reputation for being slow on the course but he was ready with a quick answer. “Win the British Open,” he said. “This could be my last try.”

While the Open Championship swansongs of Tom Watson and Nick Faldo will attract most of the attention, Langer may be the biggest threat among the over-50-set to crash the party. That is the fuel that drives Langer to wake and hit the gym at sunrise, to beat hundreds of balls a day, and believe that he can beat younger, longer players still. Langer didn’t just earn a berth in the field at St. Andrews, he grabbed it by the throat, running away with a 12-stroke victory at the Senior British Open.

“Last year, Langer had one of the great years in golf that no one really got a chance to see much because it was out on (the Champions) Tour,” ESPN commentator and part-time Champions Tour player Andy North said. “I think he is by far the best player on that tour on a week-to-week basis as far as preparation and understanding how to attack the golf course, and then going out and doing that. He has been phenomenal the last two or three years, the quality of golf he’s played.”

This marks Langer’s first entry in the Open Championship since 2011, and his seventh Open at St. Andrews. There, in 1984, Langer flirted with collecting his first major when he finished second with Tom Watson two shots behind Seve Ballesteros there. That was long enough ago that the Berlin Wall still stood, but to Langer the 1984 Open is still the one that got away.

“I was paired with Seve and I feel I played better than him,” Langer said. “That was just one of them. There were others where I finished second or third.”

Yes, there were. Try six top-3 finishes during his Open career, which dates to Royal Birkdale in 1976. Now he’s on the verge of what arguably could be his last, and almost certainly his last at the Old Course (he’ll be 63 the next time the Open is played there), a place where the first time Langer set eyes on the Old Course he was utterly unimpressed.

“I hated it,” he recalled. “I thought it was the worst golf course I’d ever played. I had never played on a links course. Almost every tee I stood on I thought, ‘Where am I going?’ You think you hit a good shot and you end up in a pot bunker. A few rounds later I started loving it. There’s so much to appreciate once you play the different wind conditions and pin positions.”

Langer is the son of a bricklayer who was taken prisoner by Soviet soldiers during World War II. His father jumped off a train and walked back to Anhausen, Germany. Langer learned to play the game as a caddie there at Augsburg Country Club when he was 9. He rode his bicycle an hour each way to the golf course. Completing his formal schooling at 15, Langer went off to Munich to serve as an assistant pro at Munich Country Club. At 18, he decided he was ready to play the European Tour, speaking English because nobody spoke German.

At St. Andrews in 1984, Langer used three different putting grips including cross-handed, and yet his putter still let him down. “From tee-to-green, I was at least four shots better than Seve,” Langer said. “The only problem was he beat me by six on the greens.”

At the 1985 Masters, Langer was paired with Ballesteros in the next-to-last twosome just as he had been at St. Andrews. Langer birdied four of the last seven holes to rally from four strokes off the lead. After he poured in a 14-foot birdie putt at 17, Ballesteros congratulated Langer at the 18th tee. “It’s yours,” he said.

Langer became the first German to win one of the four major tournaments. He won his second green jacket in 1993. Two years ago, he trailed by just two strokes during the final round when it started raining.

“The greens got so slow it was ridiculous,” he said. “You’d think I should be able to adjust but I left every putt short.”

If Langer can still contend at Augusta, then why not at St. Andrews, too? It seems almost inevitable that someone past his prime will contend there. In recent years, there’s been Greg Norman and Tom Watson and Miguel Angel Jimenez with a chance to be called the Champion Golfer of the Year on Sunday.

“He’d be the one guy over 50 I’d put money on to have a great finish,” North said.

Langer won’t even need a souped-up driver to do so, not that he is opposed to taking advantage of technological advancements.

“If I had all sorts of money I would buy a better game. Why not?” he said. “I had two little kids from my club come over to the house recently to see my trophies. I showed them the driver that I won the Masters with in 1993. It was the last year I won with a wooden club. They said, ‘What? You won with that?’ It’s 43-inches-long and heavy like hell.”

All these years later, Langer shows no signs of slowing down. How many more Aprils will he return to Augusta? His scores will let him know when it is time.

“I still love competing,” Langer said. “That’s the main motivation. I still think I can get better.”

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