Toledo, Ohio – Less than 10 days after the death of perhaps his fiercest competitor and dearest friend, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer sat in a room at Inverness Club before the start of U.S. Senior Open Media Day on May 16..
The diminutive German was overshadowed in many ways by the taller Spaniard, but Langer paid homage to one of his chief rivals not just for what Ballesteros had meant to golf, but for how deeply their two lives had become entwined.
“Seve snuck on the course when he was 15; I was never a member. We both went from caddie to pro, never had an amateur career,” said Langer. “We became dominant players like [Nick] Faldo, [Sandy] Lyle and [Ian] Woosnam. I was blessed to be paired with him many times. I was his partner the final round of the 1984 British Open. I outplayed him by four, but he outputted me by six. I watched him do that fist pump when he made that final putt.”
Langer, often described as stoic and even aloof, showed neither of those traits as he discussed a wide variety of issues, including his rise to dominance on the Champions Tour. Langer claimed a pair of major titles last summer in consecutive weeks: the Senior British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland, then the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club, eight time zones to the west in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish, Wash.
In fact, no player has won more Champions Tour titles over the last three years (13) or money the past two seasons than the 53-year-old German, who will turn 54 on Aug. 27.
And in two months (July 28-31), he will defend his U.S. Senior Open crown at Inverness after outdueling hometown favorite Fred Couples last summer.
Hopefully, Langer will have recovered from the thumb surgery he underwent in late March for a torn ligament that kept the two-time Masters champion sidelined from the Champions Tour’s first two majors of 2011. It also ended his 27-year streak of appearances at the Masters and forced him out of the U.S. Open, which he earned an exemption into by virtue of his U.S. Senior Open victory.
“It was my goal when I came out on tour to be one of the best players, a dominant player,” said Langer. “I felt I had the credentials and the game. I thought maybe I could be one of the five guys who win the most tournaments. I was hoping something good would happen and it did.”
Langer played on 10 European Ryder Cup teams (1981-97) and captained the 2004 squad that routed the United States at Oakland Hills Country Club outside of Detroit. He has also won more than 80 professional tournaments worldwide.
Those glittering credentials led to induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2002. Not bad for a guy who nearly died from fever cramps between the ages of 2 and 5. Then while serving in the German military at 19, he sustained a stress fracture in his back and battled a couple of bulging discs.
Proud of his heritage, his family and his roots, Langer has always been loyal, which is why he supported the European Tour throughout his career rather than play regularly in the U.S. And his allegiance to the Champions Tour has become just as strong.
“I think it’s existing very well,” said Langer of the Champions Tour. “We’ve lost two or three sponsors, but gained just as many. We’re at a number, 26 tournaments, that’s perfect. We had 40-something at one point and that was too many. It’s too many for guys over 50. I love the game, but I don’t love it enough to play that much.”
When the Champions Tour debuted in the 1980s, it was designed as a vehicle to keep the game’s greats like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino in the public eye because golf fans everywhere knew those names.
While the tour still has a measure of nostalgia, it’s also become highly competitive with the best PGA Tour players gaining a healthy mulligan.
“Our tour refreshes itself all the time. Every month, every few weeks, there are new faces coming on,” said Langer. “The neat thing is you only get the very best. Not every 50-year-old is qualified.
“Right now you have guys like Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan, Larry Nelson in their 60s and playing well. And we have guys like Kenny Perry, Corey Pavin, Tom Lehman, just over 50, also playing well. Only those with the best pedigrees are out there. … guys out there that people actually know. They’ve seen us for 20-30 years on the regular tour. Right now, I don’t know about a quarter of the guys on the regular tour.”
Throughout his career, Langer’s quiet personality was a constant, just like the high level of his game and fitness. As his pedigree has grown, so has his legacy within the game. When he speaks in that recognizable monotone, people listen, no matter the topic.
“We still have a very good image, I believe,” said Langer, who keeps himself in tremendous shape through a disciplined workout regimen. “What Tiger did didn’t help. That wasn’t good for the game, certainly not for our main guy to be known to do that. But golf in general has been a very clean sport. Our standard is so high.”
Langer is no stranger to Inverness, having played the 1986 and 1993 PGA Championships there. He remembered enjoying one of Donald Ross’ finest designs. “It’s an old-style course with severe greens,” he said. “It’s a matter of hitting it where you’re looking and making some putts.”
Sounds like just the kind of course for a guy who has made a career of being calculating and in control. Even coming off an injury, don’t look for that to change now.
Mike Dudurich is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA.org.