News & Opinion

Ageless Langer shifts into higher gear

Bernhard Langer is a machine. A German Iron Byron whose sleek design and seemingly limitless capacity for production have made him perhaps the finest senior golfer who ever lived. The longer Langer plays, the more impressive his accomplishments become, and there’s no reason to believe those achievements will cease any time soon.

A two-stroke victory at the Senior British Open on Sunday was Langer’s 11th major title on the over-50 circuit, three more than Jack Nicklaus, four more than Hale Irwin. It’s a record Langer may own for a very long time, given how the massive purses awarded on the PGA Tour make it less likely that today’s superstars will find any reason to make the Champions Tour a full-time occupation.

Bernhard Langer
At 61, Bernhard Langer, with his signature long putter, has become one of the game’s most enduring champions.

Of course, Langer isn’t exactly bumming for meals at the local soup kitchen. He has won 40 times since qualifying for Geritol Ball after picking up 42 trophies on the European Tour from 1980 to 2002, which ranks second all-time in both leagues. He has claimed 10 of the past 11 money titles on the Champions Tour. He is the only man to win all five senior majors – perhaps we should call that the Grandpa Slam – in addition to his Masters triumphs in 1985 and 1993.

The dude turns 62 in about a month, which also makes Langer the oldest guy ever to win a geezer major, although that designation can be disputed by the estate of Jock Hutchison, who claimed the 1947 Senior PGA Championship at age 63. Camp Ponte Vedra has this habit of acting as if golf never was played until Arnold Palmer showed up, but that is neither here nor there in this context.

Langer is amazing. He has been so good for so long that people tend to overlook his consistency, longevity and overall brilliance. He fires a Sunday 66 in an English downpour to win his fourth Senior British, piling up four birdies on the front nine to chase down Paul Broadhurst, who had led him by three. Hip, hip … hooray, or who cares?

The tournament’s lead story belonged to Tom Watson, who was making his final competitive appearance in the United Kingdom. Yes, old-timer golf is a ceremonial thing, and few turn the heads of nostalgists more frequently than Watson, the only guest who made me nervous during my four years on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” And yes, Watson’s overseas farewell certainly was newsworthy, but it overshadowed yet another extraordinary performance by a player who really never has gotten his due, as they say, an ageless bulldog whose resiliency and tenacity have gone largely unappreciated over the course of his career.

How can a man who famously battled the yips for lengthy stretches as a young tour pro still be winning majors in his 60s? Such results defy logic. Langer tried everything before finding a trusty friend in the long putter, as have many golfers over the years. Since the USGA/R&A imposed the ban on the anchored stroke at the start of 2016, however, no one has been accused of violating the rule more often than Langer.

Actually, he was the only one mentioned in the stories I read.

Hmm. Does success breed contempt, or does the smoke come with fire? My podcast partner, Jeff Rude, sent me two videos he had received from guys whom he knows on the Champions Tour, both of which were very short clips of Langer putting in a tournament. I watched four other similar samples culled from the Internet, and because I try to record every tournament that might be connected to a possible story idea, I saved the last 45 minutes of Langer’s victory at Royal Lytham.

Anchors aweigh, Batman! Talk about close. Without question, Langer’s left hand, which grips the very top of the putter, is brushing the neckline of his sweater as he goes through his pre-stroke routine. When he goes to address the ball, however, Langer alters his posture. He assumes a more pronounced squat. His back is tipped slightly so that his eyes are almost directly over the point of contact. And on the half-dozen or so putts I examined, his hand moves an inch or so away from his chest (video).

Incriminating and conclusive are two very different things, and several factors come into play here. Television cameras, especially on shots from considerable distance, can be deceiving. At 5 feet 9 inches, Langer is not a tall man, but he uses a very long putter, which seems to make the visual only more complicated. And the heavy clothing that he wore at Lytham is more likely to make it appear as if he is breaking the law, although his fellow competitors aren’t basing their accusations on days when they played with him in a 52-degree drizzle.

Is the Champions Tour cutting some slack to one of its biggest names? Maybe. I’m not naïve enough to think a couple of aging tour pros are calling attention to the matter simply to harm Langer’s reputation. We’re talking about one of the greatest players of his generation, a guy who has won more than 100 tournaments worldwide, but this is also a man whose legacy, at least to some extent, is defined by the 6-footer that he missed on the 18th hole at Kiawah Island in the 1991 Ryder Cup.

Many still consider it to be the most pressure-packed putt in golf history. If Langer holes the par attempt, Europe retains the chalice. Instead, he burned the edge and America won by a point. A devastated Langer flew back to Germany and won the Euro Tour event in his homeland the next week.

The machine never malfunctions for long.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com