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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2011

U.S. SENIOR OPEN

Underappreciated greatness

From Masters to Ryder Cup to senior golf, Langer's career remarkable

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADES SPORTS COLUMNIST
Bernhard Langer lifts the trophy after winning the U.S. Senior Open Championship last year at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash. He also won the Senior British Open in 2010. Bernhard Langer lifts the trophy after winning the U.S. Senior Open Championship last year at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash. He also won the Senior British Open in 2010.
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Bernhard Langer doesn't recall the exact year, but based on the numbers he remembers it may well have been 1987, two years after he won his first green jacket and one year after Jack Nicklaus weaved his magical spell for the final time at Augusta National.

The two were paired in the third round of the Masters and something happened that still bugs the great German golfer.

"By the end of the round I was a couple shots out of the lead and six shots ahead of Jack," Langer said. "But I watched the [television] tape later and they showed Jack 15 or 16 times during the telecast. They showed me making just my last putt. And I'm in third or fourth place. I thought, 'Wow, that's a little bit skewed, isn't it?'

"I understand Jack's a legend, and the point I'm trying to make has nothing to do with him. But I wasn't exactly an unknown and being the sideshow, the oh-by-the-way guy, it just bothered me. And I know there were a lot of other golfers who felt the same way. The way American TV deals with international players has changed a little bit, but back then we just had to learn to live with it.

"Anyway, when you asked that question, it's the first thing that came to my mind."

The question? Well, it was a long one and went something like this.

For all that Langer has accomplished in pro golf -- two Masters titles, 75-plus wins around the world, an enviable record during 10 Ryder Cup playing berths and a huge upset win on American soil as the European team captain, selection to the World Golf Hall of Fame before his 45th birthday, and now a dominant three-year stretch on the Champions Tour that included two major championships in 2010 -- does he feel his career has been underappreciated?

Berhard Langer hits a practice shot at this year's British Open. In 1986, when world rankings began, he was the first to be No. 1. Berhard Langer hits a practice shot at this year's British Open. In 1986, when world rankings began, he was the first to be No. 1.
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"I think at times I felt that way," said Langer, who will defend his U.S. Senior Open championship this week at Inverness Club. "Maybe not so much now, but it used to bother me a little during the early and middle stages of my career. I'm from a country where golf isn't a major sport and on the occasions I left Europe I was sort of lost in the maze.

"Jack was still at the height of his popularity, and then Greg Norman came on the scene. He and Seve [Ballesteros] were very charismatic. By comparison, I guess I was always seen as stoic. And there were so many great American players like Tom Watson, Payne Stewart, Fred Couples, and on and on. I was a [PGA Tour] member from 1985-89 and I was playing in between 15 and 17 events a year here.

"Still, I was true to my roots and wanted to support the European Tour. And I was a world player; I'd play in Japan and Australia and South Africa. I was playing in that $1 million event [in South Africa] when apartheid was still going on and I literally had my life threatened. But I was a global player. It's what I did. Maybe it cost me some recognition here in the U.S. But I don't regret anything. For a guy who came from where I did with no great expectations, I'm pretty happy with my career."

Langer was a sickly child from a poor family in Bavaria who, still short of his teens, found a fascination with golf while all his friends headed for the soccer fields.

"I took some abuse, but I had the bug," he said. "I found a love of the game and I had some God-given talent, obviously, but there was a lot of hard work and determination. If I'd given the same effort to soccer or skiing I might have been as good in those sports. But I chose golf."

He went from caddie to professional by the age of 15, but his career almost was ended before it started. At 19, during an 18-month stint in the German Air Force, Langer suffered stress fractures and bulging discs in his back.

"I was in the hospital for four weeks," Langer said. "The stress fractures, those were pretty serious. I actually thought I might never play golf again."

Not only did he continue playing, he never stopped winning, despite being dogged by back pain throughout his career. By the age of 20 he was the dominant player in his country. By 23 he had his first win outside of Germany.

By 24 he played in his first Ryder Cup. By 27 he had his first major championship. In 1986, at the age of 29, when the Official World Golf Ranking made its debut, Bernhard Langer was the very first player ever to be proclaimed No. 1.

He is best known for his two Masters wins and for a long and distinguished Ryder Cup career. Only one European, Great Britain's Nick Faldo, has been on more teams, played in more matches and won more points than Langer, who did every bit as much as Spain's fiery Ballesteros to revive the Euros' fortunes in the event.

Bernhard Langer holds the 2010 U.S. Senior Open championship trophy during a visit to Inverness Club to promote this year's tournament. He played in 10 Ryder Cup events and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Bernhard Langer holds the 2010 U.S. Senior Open championship trophy during a visit to Inverness Club to promote this year's tournament. He played in 10 Ryder Cup events and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
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Still, a man who fought his putting stroke for years is remembered for a five-foot putt he missed at Kiawah Island in 1991 that allowed the U.S. to post a dramatic victory.

When Langer was the Euros' non-playing captain in 2004, though, there was no drama. Not only did his team post an upset at Oakland Hills near Detroit, it did so in an 18 1/2-9 1/2 rout after U.S. captain Hal Sutton's disastrous decision to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in two opening-day partners matches.

"We just played better, all three days in all competitions," Langer said. "It wasn't a fluke. That particular year we were just dominant. I had a feeling Tiger and Phil might be paired together and I understand why Hal did it, for the excitement factor. But I could see why it might backfire, too, when you consider the two guys don't really like each other."

Langer puts his two Masters wins atop of his list of career accomplishments, followed by his Ryder Cup history as a player and captain, and then the back-to-back majors he won last summer in the British Senior Open and the U.S. Senior Open.

"Whenever you beat the best from all over it means the most," he said.

He did it for a long time. He's still doing it. And he'll be trying to do it again this week at Inverness Club.



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