Friday, January 23, 2009

KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — Bernhard Langer has long fought back problems that limit his flexibility and get worse with age, not that any one could tell.

The two-time Masters champion is coming off a three-win season on the Champions Tour. He was the only one to break $2 million and became just the third player in the tour's 30-year history to earn both player and rookie of the year honors.

With a full year to get familiarized with the courses, there's big expectations surrounding the German star as the tour opens Friday at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the first of 26 events this season, the fewest since 1985.

``I expect because he's a little more comfortable out here, that he's going to be doubly tough to beat,'' said Jay Haas, runner-up to Langer on the money list.

Langer had 14 top-10 finishes in 20 starts in his first full season on the 50-and-over circuit. He also had a second-place finish at the Senior PGA Championship and a 15th-place tie in the PGA Tour's Players Championship, where he was in contention until he closed with a 77.

Langer said the biggest adjustment in his transition from the regular to the senior tour wasn't adjusting to the courses. It was the need to be more aggressive.

``Out here, the guys are just going for every pin,'' Langer said. ``They're hitting driver on every hole almost. There's no letting up.

``On the PGA Tour, the first two rounds is more like getting yourself in position, making cut, being close to the leaders. You don't want to take a chance to get a big number and miss the cut. Out here, it's different.''

The players will need to be on the attack this weekend at Hualalai, which features generous fairways, a spectacular ocean vista and the tour's easiest layout in the last six years with an average score below 70.

``Here, the guys run the table here, so you've got to shoot low,'' Haas said. ``You got to stay aggressive and keep the pedal down. You can't let up.''

Haas, the 2007 player of the year, has a string of nine straight rounds in the 60s at the Mitsubishi, formerly known as the MasterCard Championship, and tied for third last year, fifth in 2007 and third in '06.

Langer said he has enjoyed the camaraderie and competition from the players, many of whom have competed against each other for decades.

``Many of us are not here to prove anything. That doesn't mean we're not competitive. We are here because we are competitive. That's what it boils to,'' he said.

It's a strange dynamic, he said, where the players are all close friends, ``but once we're on the golf course, to try to beat each other brains (in).''

The 51-year-old Langer began his 2008 season at Hualalai, where he tied for third with Haas. Last year, Fred Funk birdied the final two holes for a 21-under 195 total, two strokes over Allen Doyle and four better than Haas and Langer.

Funk, recovering from a knee injury, is one of three players who have withdrawn from the winners-only event, leaving just 34 participants. The other sidelined players are Peter Jacobsen (left shoulder) and Scott Hoch (sore left wrist).

Tom Watson and Jerry Pate, however, are returning to action for the first time since their surgeries last year. Watson, who had his left hip replaced in October, is making his first start since August.

Pate, the 2008 Turtle Bay champion, hasn't played since the Senior PGA Championship in May. He had left-shoulder surgery and left-knee surgery in the summer.

Langer, meanwhile, said he feels good ``most of the time,'' but he's still bothered by his back that he injured when he was 19 as a member of the German Air Force.

He sustained two stress fractures and bulging disks while marching with a 30-pound sack and a rifle.

``And it's bad ever since. I just need to live with that. I don't talk about it much, I just get on with it,'' Langer said.

The injury has left his lower back stiff, which limits his motion in his swing. But he's not complaining.

``Overall, I've been blessed,'' Langer said. ``I'm still here. I'm still swinging.''

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