PITTSBURGH, Pa.—The main stage at storied Fox Chapel Golf Club is its 17th green, a classic Seth Raynor example of a Biarritz green. It’s big and long and wide and divided by a serious approach-shot-eating trench.
So there was no better place for the biggest stroke of the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship. Bernhard Langer, known for conquering the yips more than once, rolled in a bender of a birdie putt from 35 feet at the 17th on Sunday.
It didn’t win him the tournament. All it did was lift Langer into a tie with Jeff Sluman going to the 72nd hole, but it was a stroke of genius and the shot of the week. Langer needed two playoff holes to defeat Sluman and score his third Champions Tour major championship — holing a short birdie putt on the par-5 18th the second time he played it — but it was that unlikely putt at the Biarritz green that made it possible.
Did somebody say unlikely?
“It was impossible,” Kenny Perry said with a laugh. “He could stand there with 100 balls and never make it again!”
The Senior Players final round was supposed to be a showdown between the tour’s big guns — Langer and Perry — but Perry coughed up three bogeys on the back nine as he battled to control the backspin on his approach shots, and Langer stumbled badly with a bogey at the 10th and a double at the 12th. Sluman and Russ Cochran got into the mix, but finally it was Sluman, with clutch birdies at the 14th and 16th, who looked like the potential survivor.
Then came Langer’s ridiculous putt at No. 17. It broke at least four feet and by the end, where it sloped off toward the trench, Langer’s ball barely crawled over the edge of the cup and toppled in. Even the usually implacable Langer pumped a fist in the air and — wait for it! — broke into a rare smile.
That was a putt for the ages, and it’ll have to do in these parts for a while, because the Senior Players Championship’s three-year run at Fox Chapel, an old-style course the players loved, has come to an end. Next year, the tournament moves to the Boston area, and while the new venue, the Belmont Club, is an original Donald Ross design, it just won’t be the same. The course has been remodeled at least twice and at one point a new road took out of couple of the original holes.
Sluman was already in at 15 under par after his 5-under 65 when Langer’s putt dropped.
“I heard a noise out at 17 and figured it was probably Bernhard,” Sluman said. “I didn’t see it but let’s put it this way, it definitely wasn’t a par roar.”
Langer estimated that putt at anywhere from 50 to 60 feet — you don’t want to buy real estate from this guy if that’s how he measures ground — and said it broke at least four feet. Whatever the distance, “It was a great thrill to see that putt drop and tie Jeff,” Langer admitted.
It was an unusual finish for the typically methodical Langer. He shot 33 on the front side with two bogeys. Sluman, who began the round five shots behind, didn’t really expect the leaders to be catchable until he looked up at a leaderboard at the 16th hole, saw he was tied for the lead, then ran in his 10-footer for birdie to take the outright lead.
Langer had a bogey and a double on the back. That putt at the 17th was his only birdie until the sudden death playoff. Langer missed a birdie try there on the first extra hole then watched Sluman’s eight-footer from above the hole ring around the edge and somehow stay out. A stunned Sluman dropped his putter, turned the other way and mouthed to himself, “What happened?”
Asked if he thought that putt was in, Sluman joked, “I think everybody did. Even Bernhard told me on the way off the green that he couldn’t believe it didn’t go in.”
The second time around, Langer accidentally laid up in the rough but played a brilliant pitch over a bunker to five feet. Sluman rolled his 15-footer for birdie to within an inch, but when it didn’t drop, he was pretty sure Langer wouldn’t miss a short one to claim his third senior major. He didn’t.
While Langer was excited about winning another major, he seemed even more intrigued about next year’s Players. The Senior Players winner gets a spot in The Players at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. He’ll get to see his good friend and fellow German, Martin Kaymer, who won this year’s Players and then went on to snag the U.S. Open.
“For us to win the same tourney on two tours is unique,” Langer said. “First, there aren’t that many German payers on any pro golf tour. We’re good friends. I admire what he’s already achieved at a young age. I look forward to playing practice rounds with him at the Players and the Masters next year.”
There will be a little national pride at stake.
“He will defend his Players title,” Langer said with a smile “and I will try to make his defense difficult.”
Sluman, a former PGA Championship winner, made Langer’s title run difficult after a brief but heavy rain shower Sunday afternoon.
“If I’m ever in another playoff, bet the other guy,” Sluman joked. “I think I’m 1-10 in playoffs.”
There were heroic shots, holed putts and some surprising errors. Langer’s putt at the 17th stands out above the rest. All in all, it was a classic exit for a classic course.