Bernhard Langer is 60 on his Florida driver's license, but the golf ball at his feet thinks he's 50, if not younger. Tom Watson was 59 when he played 72 holes at the 2009 British Open at Turnberry in 278 strokes, a score matched by one player and bettered by nobody. If Langer catches Augusta this year when the course plays firm and the days are warm, he can shoot 280, 279 — something like that. He can win.
When Langer won his first green coat in 1985, he shot 282. When he won his second in '93, he shot 277. When he won the Senior PGA Championship last year, overtaking Vijay Singh in the fourth round, he shot 270. Yes, Augusta National is far more challenging than the Trump course in Sterling, Va. Still, Langer has enough game and know-how, and the critical emotional control, to contend. And if he can contend, he can win. He did, after all, win seven times in 21 senior events last year.
Is the prospect of Langer in the Sunday afternoon parade at the 2018 Masters a long shot? Of course it is. But it's possible, and that's what makes the prospect so enticing. Bernhard, in the mix at Augusta! Try to contain your excitement.
Part of Langer's peculiar appeal, at least for me, is his emotional austerity. When he's anxious, his eyes might narrow. More significantly, there's nobody in golf who pushes the known limits of mind-over-matter further than Bernhard Langer. If you see photos of him from almost any point in his four decades as a play-the-world pro, his physique is essentially unchanged. Genetic luck is part of it. Devotion to diet and exercise, and the mental discipline that comes with such devotion, is everything else. Five-eight and 160. Same as it ever was.
At the 2014 Masters, when he was 56, Langer shot a Sunday 69 for 288 and tied for eighth. The winner, Bubba Watson at 280, closed with a 69, too. "Bubba hit wedge into 13," Langer told me recently. "I hit 2-hybrid."
Langer's play in the 2016 Masters was more impressive. Through three rounds, he trailed Jordan Spieth, 22 and leading, by two shots. Langer was in the penultimate twosome, at age 58. His closing 79 was not due to nerves or tiredness or anything except failure to execute. "I went out with the mindset of 'play aggressively, play to win, shoot a low score on the front,'" Langer said. "I was in the first cut on the first hole and couldn't tell if I had a flyer or not." He decided it wasn't. It was. From over the first green, you do well to make bogey. "I had a plan. It didn't work." Langer is nothing if not honest and direct.
At a senior event in February, Langer finished bogey-bogey and thereby handed (his word) the tournament to Mark Calcavecchia, who won by two. Calc was shocked by Langer's close — it was such an aberration. "Mentally, Bernhard is the toughest person in golf," he said. As tough, Calc said, as Jack Nicklaus was in his prime, and Tiger Woods in his.
Is there a test that can measure Calc's claim? No. Still, I'm with him. For decades now, Langer has played as a recovering yipper. He soldiered on after the agony of that missed five-footer (final man on the final green taking the final putt) that sealed a loss for Europe at the 1991 Ryder Cup. He made the necessary compliance changes to his putting method after the no-anchoring rule went live at the start of 2016. He has endured ridiculous claims that he continues to anchor. "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't play by the rules," he told me. Amen.
Bernhard can count on seeing Tiger and Jack together at least once a year, at the Champions Dinner held in the Augusta clubhouse on the Tuesday before the tournament. Langer sits with Larry Mize and Zach Johnson, at the praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-biscuits end of the table. It's all good. When Snead used to work blue, Langer laughed with everybody else.
Some months after Woods ran over that hydrant after Thanksgiving 2009, Langer's disapproval of the man was palpable. He told me then, "I don't know if Buddha will forgive him his sins. I know Jesus will." But when we spoke this winter, Langer's tone was far gentler. He said, "I don't know Tiger. We have a cordial relationship. But from everything I can see, he's coming back." He meant those last two words in the broadest possible sense.
Langer says Woods and Nicklaus are the two best he ever saw, and believes that Woods at his best was better than Nicklaus at his. He sees major similarities between them. "They were thorough in their preparations, they did not beat themselves, they did not pull the trigger on a shot until they were ready," Langer said. All that is pure Langer, of course.
"When I played that way, I was called slow, but that's okay," Langer said.
Maybe — just maybe — the man's lips curled north.