DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Just before last fall’s Ryder Cup, European captain Paul McGinley called Bernhard Langer. The Irishman told the German stalwart that he wasn’t going to use one of his three wild-card selections on the two-time Masters champion.
“He said he had too many young guys that deserved a spot, so he had to pick from them,” Langer said during a round of golf at Delaire Country Club as part of an event organized by Adams Golf.
Langer had no idea there had been a grassroots Twitter movement of American and European golf fans alike imploring McGinley to name him to the team. He laughed when I told him about it.
However, McGinley didn’t call Langer just to offer him a pity letdown. The Irishman wanted to pick Langer’s brain on how to lead his team.
Langer, too, had been captain, during the 2004 road game at Oakland Hills. It was the Kill ‘Em with Kindness campaign — a phrase, at whose mention, washed a smile over his Langer’s face. Oh, wait, it was just the Kill ‘Em campaign. Langer’s charges pasted the U.S. by a 18.5-9.5 margin for the worst American loss in the biennial matches. The loss hurt so bad that the U.S. lost by the same count two years later at The K Club in Ireland.
In fact, McGinley and Langer talked a second time. All told, the two men talked strategy and leadership for two hours. Langer didn’t play, but he had an influence on the romp at Gleneagles.
Bernhard Langer is arguably better known in golf now than at any point in his playing career. In 2014, Langer played the best golf of his life. He won five times on the Champions Tour, including a pair of major championships. He avenged a playoff loss to Mark Wiebe in the Senior Open Championship the year prior to the tune of a 13-shot victory. The Champions Tour season-long race, the Charles Schwab Cup, was Langer’s well before the season finale (even if players had a mathematical chance of catching him before the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship).
Playing with Langer, it’s clear to see why he is still on top of his game. Golf is very logical for him, and he manages a round like a chess player. Ball goes here, then it goes there and then he may or may not make the putt for birdie. Repeat that 18 times. Some holes and some shots are easier than others. It’s on those that he pounces. A 40-yard pitch spun back to a foot. A 20-footer straight uphill for birdie.
On the rare occasion he’s off target, he minimizes the damage, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of the hero shot. Then again, the term implies a big ego that Langer doesn’t have. It’s not an escape, either. It’s doing what you can with what you have in your hand and in front of you. After a tee shot I hit bounded just to the right of a tree, I pulled out a 4-iron, turned it over and hooked it low and out of the way. After I hit the shot, Langer inquisitively asked why I hadn’t choked down on a 3-wood and hit a cut. Quite simply, it was a shot I didn’t see. However, he knew it was there and that I could’ve pulled it off. If he didn’t think I had a chance, he wouldn’t have said a thing. Langer is practicality personified. It’s very appealing.
Later that evening at dinner, Langer is an open book on any subject, including his place in Champions Tour lore. There are but three guys whose 50-plus records matter. One is Sam Snead, who was relevant in majors into his 60s. However, since the formation of the Champions Tour, just two guys matter: Hale Irwin and Langer.
Irwin built on his three U.S. Open titles with 45 Champions Tour wins. At 23 Champions Tour wins, Langer knows he’ll never catch Irwin but is quick to point out that the circuit used to be more flush with tournaments. Langer is taking what’s in front of him and dominating.
In what wasn’t a set-up question, someone asked Langer how many wins he had in his career. The two-time Masters winner grinned humbly. Ninety-six. Almost 100. He’s come a long way from the assistant pro in Germany that turned pro when he was 18. It’s been a long journey since staying in hostels and meek hotels, carrying his own clubs and a shag bag.
Back in the early days of the European Tour, it was so raw that host venues couldn’t be counted on to provide practice balls that weren’t cut and were actually spherical. So players brought their own. His modest family background and cutting his teeth in such a daunting professional environment makes him very appreciative of what he has now.
Perhaps that’s why he’s still in great shape. Maybe that’s why he remains regimented, albeit more relaxed compared to his earlier days. He wants to be there for his wife of 30 years and his children.
Of course, the looming potential road block to his continued cleaning up of the Champions Tour is the ban of the anchored putting stroke. Langer’s not happy that the stroke he’s used since 1996 will become illegal when the calendar turns to 2016. He, just as well as anyone in golf, knows that Webb Simpson and Ernie Els winning the USGA’s and R&A’s respective signature championships sealed that fate. However, what’s done is done. Langer will make the transition when the Champions Tour season ends, giving him two months to figure out what will work best for him. He’ll have a chance to observe how his younger peers, including Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley, adjust. If how he experimented on the course is any indication, he’ll return to laying the putter grip on his forearm.
While it’s unclear what the anchoring ban will mean for the German, Bernhard Langer has one clear weakness: dessert. As dinner wraps and the food settles and expands, Langer, who ate a sensible meal, gets excited looking down the menu of sweets.
“When it comes to dessert,” Langer smiles, “I’m a 12-time Masters champion.”