Sammamish, Wash. – In the end, nothing Fred Couples and his thousands of fans threw at Bernhard Langer probably would have mattered.
Langer was the one player in the field at the 31st U.S. Senior Open who had the wide range of qualities needed to beat the championship’s honorary chairman as well as to avoid falling victim to the difficulties of Sahalee Country Club.
The 52-year-old German won his second senior major championship in two weeks with a bogey-free, 3-under-par 67 to finish at 8-under 272. That was more than enough to top Couples, the Seattle native who is still kicking himself for a triple-bogey 8 on the second hole that was the only real blemish in his final-round 70 and 5-under 275 total.
So in two weeks, Langer won the British Senior Open (with the winner’s share of $315,600) on wide-open Carnoustie in Scotland, flew 20 hours through eight time zones and then posted a victory (worth $470,000) Sunday on tree-lined, 6,866-yard Sahalee. Thus, two of the majors he didn’t win on the regular tour are now firmly in his pocket.
He can thank his ability to stay focused for longer periods of time than his competitors. Langer talks proudly of backing up victories in the 1985 Masters and 1995 Ryder Cup with triumphs the following weeks.
“That’s something that most players can’t do, they lose focus, they’re tired, or whatever it is,” Langer said.
“I think, obviously, when you’re totally dedicated to something you’re able to play your very best,” added 2010 Senior PGA champion Tom Lehman, who was also impressed with Langer’s ability to handle the Ryder Cup atmosphere of playing in Couples’ hometown. I think it does say a lot about his ability to always stay cool under pressure. Playing with Freddie in the last group, in Fred’s hometown, and he beats him, that’s a pretty big victory for him.”
The Sunday crowd of 31,444 who watched two past Masters champions start the day at five under didn’t really need anything to get more charged up, but that’s exactly what happened on the first hole when Couples made it look easy with an 8-foot birdie.
But that birdie and one-stroke lead quickly came back to haunt Couples on the second hole.
“When I birdied that first hole, that was what I thought I needed to get going,” Couples said. “And then about 12 minutes later I was looking for a hole to crawl in.”
While the television replays will concentrate on the chunked wedge from 69 yards that ended up in the pond fronting the 508-yard, par-5 second hole, Couples was questioning his decision to lay up in front of the pond in the first place.
“Going down the third hole, I was asking my caddie (Joe LaCava) if I’ve ever laid up on a par 5,” Couples said. “And I did on the second hole and walked away with an 8.”
Couples was uncomfortable with his lie in the first cut of rough when he was 227 yards out, and knew he had to cut his shot to get around the trees and past the pond. But with his one-shot lead, his final decision was to lay up.
“I can wedge it in there and I should have a 10- or 15-footer for birdie at the worst, and I just chunked it,” Couples said. “And then it became a comedy of errors.”
He walked back 10 yards to drop, but misjudged his yardage and landed in the deep rough over the green. A chip and two putts later, he had made an 8, creating a four-shot swing in Langer’s favor after his birdie.
Although Langer now had a three-shot lead, Couples repeatedly put his approaches inside Langer’s and had shorter birdie putts, but he couldn’t convert. And whenever Langer got himself in trouble, he made great par-saves ... to the disappointment of all of Couples’ fans.
“I usually have more than 50 percent on my side,” Couples said of the crowd’s support. “And this was probably 99 percent. And it was great. They were loud. I birdied the third hole, so at least I got them back into it.”
The fans were respectful as well. The most disparaging comment toward Langer probably came on the sixth hole when he took off his windshirt and a few fans wondered aloud about his choice of what could be described as a deep fuchsia-colored shirt.
He answered those fans with a 10-footer for birdie on one of the toughest holes on the course.
“If I play in my hometown they want me to win, it’s quite normal,” Langer said about being the underdog. “I knew I was going to be up against that, but when you pull through that and you win in difficult circumstances, it just means that much more.”
The victory wasn’t assured until the end because Couples, who led the championship in birdies (17), wouldn’t let his fans down without a fight. Birdies on the 14th and 16th holes cut the gap to two shots, but Couples couldn’t find any magic on the final two holes, and Langer certainly wasn’t going to let anything get away after not three-putting all week and posting just one bogey in his final 45 holes.
Couples’ second-place finish was worth $280,000. Olin Browne matched the low round of the championship with a 65 and finished at 2-under 278 to tie John Cook (67) for third. Tom Watson closed with his best round, a 66, to claim fifth at 1-over 281.
Tim Jackson of Memphis, Tenn., was the low amateur with a closing 70 for an 11-over 291, which earned him a return trip to the Northwest later this month for the U.S. Amateur, an hour away at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
Watson, who knows a little bit about winning majors (eight), was impressed with how Langer could pull off two senior majors in back-to-back weeks.
“I think he’s on a roll. It doesn’t matter if the crowd is behind Freddie or not, he’s on a roll,” Watson said. “He’s a plodder, and he really makes sure that he’s ready to play the shot, and he’s thoroughly thought it out. It’s good to be a plodder.”
Lehman said that Langer’s success goes deeper than that, and that his lifestyle contributes to his success on the golf course, especially with the challenge of playing back-to-back majors eight time zones apart.
“There is no question he is very much a man of conviction and morals and faith, and lives his life in a very disciplined and upright way,” Lehman said. “When you walk your walk with complete integrity, you have nothing to worry about. And I think that’s the way he plays golf and that’s the way he lives his life. He can hold his head high no matter what he does.”
These past two weeks, his head and his golf game have been higher than any of his senior competitors.
Paul Ramsdell is a Seattle-based freelance writer who contributed articles this week for the U.S. Senior Open website.