Brad Faxon was at a Champions Tour event in the Sunshine State a couple years ago, late on a Thursday afternoon, watching one lone golfer, long wand in hand, making putt after putt after putt: Bernhard Langer, his own self.
“Now there’s a legend,” I said to Brad.
“Maybe the most underrated golfer of all-time,” Brad said.
“If modern golf has a Hogan, he is it,” I said.
“And nobody’s watching him,” Brad said.
Saturday at Augusta, people were finally watching him. Bernhard Langer, 58, is one under par through three rounds in this 80th Masters, and he’s trailing by two shots. Fifty-eight, people. To borrow a phrase from Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Langer’s adopted Florida, let’s dispel this with notion that today’s golfers are so much better than the kings of yesteryear. What Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy do is drive it a mile, hit some sort of hybrid posing as a 7-iron on the green and then make or miss with the most mechanical looking putting strokes golf has ever seen.
The exception is your 54-hole leader, Jordan Spieth, who is in the tradition of Tiger Woods, who modeled himself on Greg Norman, who was inspired by Big Jack himself. Langer’s swing is no thing of beauty, but he follows from Hogan in one way above all: he figured out, largely for himself, what worked, and he grooved it, bearing in mind all the while the game’s equipment has changed as his body has aged and slowed down. “I pick up the shaft,” he said Saturday night. “And I drive my right shoulder through the ball. It’s been an evolution.”
That last part is critical to Langer’s phenomenal success on the senior tour and to what he has done over three rounds here. What he’s done his whole career is what the great college basketball players do: adjust, adjust, adjust. It will be popular to say, on this second Sunday in April, that Langer, in terms of height and weight, is virtually the same now as he was when he won here in ’85 and ’93. It’s true, it’s a tremendous testament to his discipline, and it’s part of the answer. But that’s all it is.
He’s changed as a person, too. When Langer won in ’85, he once told me, he was basically a self-absorbed shell of a man, not yet fully formed. The very next week, at Hilton Head, he has said many times, he found God. He won his second Masters in ’93 as born-again Christian on Easter Sunday. For decades now, he has been as devoted to the senior tour’s weekly Bible Study as he has been to the practice range.
His life is almost monastic, a study in simplicity: God, family, golf. He told me some years ago that he and his wife were home-schooling their kids so “we can control what goes into their heads.” On the golf course, he has been this week what he has been forever: all business. He’s playing in his 33rd Masters. He has played, he estimated on Saturday, 200 rounds at Augusta National, between his practice rounds and his competitive rounds. He continues to use the long putter but now with his left hand maybe an inch away from his sweater, so that the stroke is not anchored and within the new rules established at the start of this year. He said he’ll play to win on Sunday. Of course he will. What else is there for him to play for? He said he’ll be playing for the “old guys.” That’s surely true but not the whole truth. He plays golf for money and as a way to bring glory to God.
Tom Watson, who is 66, played in his final Masters this year. At age 59, he lost a British Open in a playoff. One of Watson’s heroes was Sam Snead, who played high-quality golf through his mid-70s. Neil Oxman, Watson’s caddie, was saying the other day that there is another golfer that could win on Tour at age 59 or older: Bernhard Langer.
Even though the course has grown by about 400 yards since his last win here, even though Jason Day was outdriving him by 30 and 40 yards as they played together on Saturday, he found away to get around in 70 strokes. What Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day would give to have shot that score themselves.