News & Opinion

Bernhard Langer and son add another belt to family collection

Jason holes eagle putt to win playoff for PNC Father-Son title

ORLANDO, Fla. – Ah, a father’s beaming pride. There's nothing quite like it on this earth. Bernhard Langer, age 62, has done enough on the golf course to earn his way into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and he has hit, and witnessed, clutch shots across this globe. But there was something different for him in victory on Sunday, something extra special as he listened to the sound of the ball coming off his youngest son’s metal 3-wood in an overtime session at the PNC Father-Son Challenge. The sound was so powerful, so pure, that the father struggled to describe it.

Playing the first extra hole against two other talented father-son duos (Tom and Thomas Lehman, Retief and Leo Goosen) after all had finished 36 holes of regulation at 24-under 120 at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, and with all three teams in the fairway to begin the playoff, the Langers were away, and first to hit. Jason Langer had 268 yards to the flagstick, all carry to avoid a front bunker, with a 10-mph wind in his face. He took a mighty lash, his ball soaring high and landing softly, finishing about 16 feet left of the flagstick. For extra measure, Jason drained the eagle putt to give his dad his fourth red leather Willie Park champions belt while he collected his second. (Jason’s older brother, Stefan, also owns two.) The Langers shot 60-60 (scores).

Bernhard and Jason Langer 2019 PNC Father-Son Challenge - Belt Winners
Jason Langer (left) and father Bernhard model their newest fashion accessories after winning the PNC Father-Son Challenge title Sunday at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando, Fla.

“Two hundred seventy [yards], into the wind, and he flew it all the way there,” said the proud father, his face showing a combination of disbelief and awe. “It’s something I don’t know how to do. I don’t have that it in me. I could barely get a driver there.

“It was fun for me to watch. The noise that ball made when he struck it, and the way that ball took off ... it was just spectacular. I’ve seen clutch shots in majors, and Ryder Cups, and all over the place. For our family, this is right up there.”

As it should be. Jason, 19, is a sophomore on the golf team at Penn. He won his first Father-Son five years ago as a precious, and very nervous, 14-year-old. Then, he could stand by and watch as his dad carried him much of the way. This week was different. Jason is more polished, more confident, and far less nervous. As the Lehmans and Langers and Goosens (oh my!) matched one another birdie for birdie down the stretch in the scramble format, Jason displayed great poise.

"I feel like I contributed a little more," he said.

All three teams got up-and-down from off the green to birdie the par-5 18th hole in regulation, and as they returned to the tee for one more go, Jason told himself that it probably would take eagle to win. He was right. His father got the drive into the fairway. The Kid took care of the rest.

Jason’s approach into that 18th green was another great moment in a weekend filled with them. The field of 20 teams is loaded with legendary male pros (and this year, 10-time LPGA major winner Annika Sorenstam, who played with her dad, Tom) who have had their fill of winning. All are major champions. For competitors such as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, now competing in this event with grandsons, they’ve been holding up trophies for decades.

Kudos to Team Langer, which views the PNC Father-Son as a fifth major, but this one transcends any spiffy belts that are handed out at the end. This is the traveling circus that is golf, taking time to celebrate personal family time with their own extended golf family. Not only are the pros and their children here, but grandchildren, and brothers, and sisters, and in-laws. All are welcome. The Langers’ dinner party on Saturday night required a table for 30.

Not all were in a celebratory mood. Tom Watson’s lovely wife of 20 years, Hilary, lost her 2½-year battle with pancreatic cancer on the eve of Thanksgiving. He is hurting, grieving, and frankly doesn’t really feel like playing golf. But it’s what he does. It has been his life. His children talked him into competing, returning to a tournament he had not played in 17 years. In Orlando this week, he was surrounded by the warm embrace from his second family. And somberly he acknowledged on Sunday that his days here helped to start mending a torn heart.

“Everybody has their family here. That’s the beauty of this tournament,” said Watson, a seven-time major champion who played alongside his son, Michael. (The Watsons tied for 13th.) “It’s just a wonderful family week, is what it is. It’s been cathartic. Progress, basically. My kids said, Dad, we think you want to play. And I really didn’t want to play. But when they said I should, I told them, ‘OK, I will.’ ”

Added three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin, “We’re all a bunch of traveling gypsies, if you wish, but I think we all care about each other and everybody’s families. With what happened to Hilary Watson and her passing, everybody has been gathering up around Tom as best we can. We share those things. We’ve watched so many of these kids who are now playing grow up right before us. Some of them now are hitting it 100 yards past you, and you say, ‘What happened?’ But it’s a wonderful, wonderful tournament.”

Many of these families go back a long, long way. Sunday, Jack Nicklaus and one of his grandsons, G.T. (Gary’s son), were paired with Jerry and Jenni Pate. Jenni Pate is 41, and has owned a set of clubs for only 18 months. But she went to work for her dad and knew there would be opportunities to play, so here she was. Eighteen months into this golf thing, she really has a fabulous swing (Jenni even outdrove Jack Nicklaus, who is 79, from the same tee at 18.) Twice on the back nine Sunday, Jenni made birdies that earned her a hug not only from her dad, but from the greatest player of all time, too. That’s a pretty good deal.

Nicklaus was in Australia with Pate in 1978 when Jenni was about to be born. Jerry asked Jack what he should name his first child. “Hortence Drucilla,” was Jack’s light-hearted reply. And to this day, Jack calls Jenni “Hortence,” which gives her great pleasure. In fact, for her first birthday, the Nicklaus family gifted young Jenni a dog, Lucy, that was linked to a dog owned by President Gerald Ford named Liberty and a dog owned by the Nicklaus crew named Lady.

“Yeah, that was pretty much my dream foursome today,” said Hortence, er, Jenni.

A day earlier, as late afternoon beckoned, Tom Sorenstam was pleased to have survived the first round of this sometimes nerve-wrangling (for amateurs) two-day event. He was alone in a golf cart as his more famous daughter and partner, Annika, was seated next to another pretty fair golfer, Jim Furyk, busily running through numbers in the scoring tent.

Mike McGee, Annika’s husband and Tom’s son-in-law, alerted Tom to a TV near Annika, which was showing Tom, in a tape-delayed moment, standing over an 8-foot birdie putt that he'd just made on the final hole. Soon the screen showed the putt vanishing and Tom doffing his cap and raising his arms in triumph, just as he’d seen his daughter do so many times.

“Hey, look, I made it again!” he said with a grand smile.

Sunday, after a long week of pro-ams and then the two-day tournament, the Sorenstams were pretty much gassed. They shot 71, five shots higher than Saturday, but there wasn’t much disappointment on their faces. Playing in front of friends and family members, they had a blast. Annika said she’d love to do it again.

“Score is kind of secondary today,” said Annika, who has done plenty of winning, collecting 72 LPGA victories in her day. Jumping back inside the ropes for a week had been mostly fun, and it was neat that her two children had the chance to see Mom compete. Annika motioned to her dad, a playful man whom her own children affectionately call “Musch.”

“His clubs are for sale now,” she quipped.

Never before had Annika Sorenstam been so happy and content upon tying for last place. They don’t give out belts for that. She'll just have to settle for some fantastic memories.