Lake Orion, Mich. – The difficulty in protecting a 54-hole lead in professional golf, particularly in major championships, has been one of the prominent stories in the game this year. Even someone as dependable as Bernhard Langer can struggle with the pressure of expectations.
Langer entered the final round of the U.S. Senior Open Sunday with a commanding four-stroke lead, and to a man his peers swore that the laconic German would not back up and allow anyone to catch him.
Those prognostications proved wrong. A player might be dependable, and he might have major championships under his belt, but golf is an exercise in managing unpredictability and misses.
And the unpredictable became the unmanageable Sunday at Indianwood Golf & Country Club, and Langer was relegated to runner-up in the championship he had won just two years earlier.
You can easily lose four shots in not 18 holes, you can lose it in six holes or whatever, said Langer, 54, who closed with a 2-over 72 and finished at 8-under 272, tied for second with Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin and 2009 U.S. Senior Open winner Fred Funk, two strokes behind Roger Chapman. It's happened before, and it will happen again. So I knew that.
Langer, a two-time Masters champion and winner of the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club near Seattle, actually saw three of his four strokes dissolve in two holes. An errant drive into the right rough at the par-4 second initiated a series of errors that cost him a double bogey. Combined with Chapman’s birdie at the same hole, Langer’s lead was a mere shot before he had broken a sweat.
It just kind of went from bad to worse, said Langer, who has not won a tournament in 17 months after injuring his thumb in late 2010, which eventually required surgery last year.
With the winds kicking up on Indianwood’s Old Course, Langer struggled with his swing and his putting stroke, both of which had been so formidable the day before when he fired a championship-low 6-under 64. So precise for three days, Langer missed five greens in regulation Sunday after missing just four in the first 54 holes.
The other contenders noticed quickly that Langer was vulnerable.
It was fun to get in the mix. I didn't really expect Bernhard to come backwards, Funk said. I saw he was 2 over pretty early, I think after his first four. Well, now we got a game on.
Chapman had the same thought when he looked on the scoreboard at the third green and noticed Langer 2 over par.
I don't know whether he made it the first two holes, bogey, bogey, or double. So all of a sudden he’s back to 8, and I’m 7. So I thought, wow, ‘It's game on,’ the champion said. There was a whole bunch of guys. John Huston was up there, Fred Funk was making a move. So it was going to turn out to be a really good afternoon’s golf.
Langer, who has 42 European Tour wins and has added 14 Champions Tour titles since he turned 50 in 2007, admitted that he failed to adjust to the changing conditions.
I just didn't feel comfortable with that wind, he said. The wind was out of the west today, a totally different golf course. Didn’t seem to suit my eye as well as the wind we've had all week from the south. And finally, I hit some really good shots coming home and at least finished tied for second.
Indeed, Langer didn’t quit, making birdie on three of his last four holes. When his 12-footer at the last found the cup, he pumped his fist.
A fighter to the bitter end. And it was bitter.
My goal was to shoot under par. I said yesterday, if I shoot 1 or 2 under, it will be hard for the other guys to catch me, and I didn't do that, Langer said morosely. It was for me to win the championship. If I had shot 1 or 2 under, I would have won the championship, but I just didn't play well enough to do that.
No consolation, but he has plenty of company.