For 25 years — since his first Masters victory in 1985 — Bernhard Langer has been golf’s international man of mystery. He (along with Tom Watson) is the game’s most exemplary stoic, but now and then he lets everything go. You may remember his pained face upon missing the six-foot putt that meant Europe would lose the 1991 Ryder Cup. Which was almost identical to his elated face when he holed a playoff bunker shot to win a senior event in February. He likes Ã¼berbright pants — lime green, sky blue, Day-Glo orange — often loaded with zippers, but he speaks in a Henry Kissinger dial-tone voice that promotes sound sleep. He treats shotmaking as a high science but turned to prayer to overcome the yips.
I should acknowledge here my particular interest in Langer. I watched the ’85 Masters with several fellow caddies and a small group of players on the locker room TV at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Country Club, site of the Magnolia State Classic, the tournament that then played opposite Augusta. CBS announcers kept referring to Bernhard Langer of West Germany. My parents had fled Nazi Germany as kids in the late 1930s. Before that Masters, I never would have linked golf and Germany. Bernhard Langer of West Germany, Masters winner. It left me curious.
Langer and I both worked the next week at Hilton Head. My man there, George Archer, finished 67th and earned $824. Langer won in a playoff over Bobby Wadkins, as Langer’s American wife, Vikki, walked the course wearing a “Langer’s Likers” T-shirt. I can still see Langer marching up 18, backlit by the sun, the hair on his arms bleached by his job. A lean man. A photographer’s dream.
Later that year — at the Dutch Open at the Noordwijkse Golf Club on the Netherlands coast — I caddied for Steve Elkington in his first pro tournament. For the windswept third round, on a gorgeous, seaside course, Elkington was paired with Langer. By that point Langer’s story was getting out. How he had turned pro at 15 and grown up in a tiny village in southern Germany with his waitressing, garden-growing mother and his bricklaying father, who had served in the German army during World War II. Elkington, owner of a dream swing himself, was captivated by Langer’s golf: cut shots and hook shots and low bullets and high soft ones. Langer played the wind on every shot, and his golf was out of the Hogan playbook. “Tell you what,” Elkington said to me after that Saturday round, “ol’ Bernie can play.” Elk was 22 and Langer 27.
I went to see Langer in late February, at his home in Boca Raton, in South Florida, a few days after his backyard playoff win over John Cook in the Allianz Classic, the one with the holed bunker shot. Langer is 52 now. He says he has put on about five pounds since ’85, but you’d never know it. Except for his face, weathered and creased, he hasn’t changed since that first Masters victory, at least on the outside. He remembers, as you would expect, some of the play-by-play of his two-shot triumph over Seve Ballesteros, Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange. He couldn’t recall anything in particular from the ’85 Dutch Open, but the Hilton Head week is etched in his mind.
“I had just won the Masters, I’m driving to Hilton Head with my beautiful young wife, and I felt empty,” Langer says. His English is impressive. “I don’t know why.” He and Vikki — along with their two younger homeschooled children (the older two are out of the house) — live in a development called the Woodfield Country Club, between I-95 and Florida’s turnpike. Langer’s home is in a gated development within the gated development, and the streets are named for elite universities.
Langer is wearing shorts with several zippers. His cellphone is in a holster clipped to his waistband. Jason, 10, the youngest of the children, is sitting at a nearby table, doing math in a workbook. The house is vast, overwhelming its yard. All the golf stuff is in Langer’s office.
Emptiness? With the winner’s Augusta National green coat in your car, with money in the bank, with your beautiful young wife at your side, with the world at your feet? You’d have to be a deep man, I’d say, to acknowledge emptiness with all that going for you.
“In Hilton Head, I saw Bobby Clampett,” Langer adds, “and he asked me if I wanted to attend the Wednesday night Tour Bible study group, and that’s where I met Larry Moody [the leader of the group]. Larry said I needed to be reborn if I wanted eternal life. He said it was in John 3:3. I told him, ‘I’ve been going to the Catholic church all my life. I’ve been an altar boy. Either your Bible is different from mine, or the Catholic church is wrong.’ Larry said, ‘Don’t believe me because I say it. Read it for yourself.’ I read the verse: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ “
Something clicked for Langer, right then and there. An awakening. An intense desire to be born again. Soon after, Langer says, Vikki had a similar experience. (She declined to be interviewed.) Langer says his 1993 Masters win, which fell on Easter Sunday, is far more meaningful to him than the ’85 victory “because I won as a Christian.” By that he means after being born again.
His devotion to Christianity informs everything in his life. The Langers begin their day with what Bernhard calls a “family devo.” The children are homeschooled so “we can control what goes into their heads.” After winning the Allianz Classic, at a course in Boca with friends and family watching, Langer told Golf Channel, “My daughter gave me a Bible verse this morning, and I have it right here in my pocket. Psalms 29:11: The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace. And I had a lot of peace today.” He was nearly crying.
Langer’s religious life has been helping his golf life for years. Tell your ordinary I-got-into-Greensboro Tour pro that Langer says he cured his putting woes through work and prayer, and you’ll get something like this: “What prayer? I’ll Google it.”
Langer often sits with Larry Mize, another Tour Bible-study veteran, at the Tuesday night champions dinner, which precedes the Masters. I ask Langer what he would say this year if he were sitting with Tiger Woods. “I would challenge Tiger to look into the Christian faith,” he says. “I don’t know if Buddha will forgive him his sins. I know Jesus will.”
Langer is describing Anhausen, the Bavarian village in which he grew up, and asks me if I have been to that part of Germany.
“I’ve never been to Germany,” I reply. “But my parents were born in Hamburg. They fled the Nazis in the late ’30s with their families.”
“Hamburg’s in the far north,” Langer says. “Completely on the other side of the country.”
I ask Langer about his father. He says that Erwin was born in 1919, was conscripted to the German army in 1939 and served until the end of the war in 1945, when the Russians captured him. Erwin was on a Russian train for prisoners of war, headed to Siberia, when he escaped and made his way to Anhausen.
“What did he do in the war?” I ask.
Langer says his father seldom talked about it. “In the war he was, what do you call the person who delivers things?” Langer says.
“Yes, a courier.”
I imagine a man on a thin-wheeled motorcycle, in a leather jacket, a pouch over his shoulder. I try to block out images of the Nazi swastika.
Langer describes his father as a workaholic who built the house where Langer grew up and where Langer’s mother still lives.
“My father was a great dad,” Langer says. Erwin died three years ago, at 86. “He knew nothing about golf. My mother knows less.” There is the hint of a smile on his thin lips.
As Langer describes his parents, there was no time or money for fun and games. Work and church filled their lives.
I leave his house still wondering about the roots of the emptiness he felt on that drive from Augusta to Hilton Head, but you’d need more than a morning to get to the bottom of golf’s international man of mystery.
Here are a few names culled from the senior club championship plaque in the Woodfield Country Club clubhouse: Steve Bronstein, Sheldon Rose, Howard Saperstein. The Publix where the Langers do their grocery shopping is filled this time of year with Manischewitz kosher-for-Passover macaroons and other unleavened treats. Also many jelly beans, in all the colors Langer likes for his pants. In that morning interview Langer says, “It is interesting that I wound up in Boca, which is 80 percent Jewish.”
Langer is three years older than I am. His parents and my parents are roughly contemporaries. When I lay out the broad similarities, Langer says, “Your parents were persecuted by Hitler and the Nazis. In a different way mine were too. And we were both drawn to golf. It is interesting.”
At one point Langer raises his upper lip with his tanned fingers and shows me where a dentist had shaved a gum to accommodate a disobedient tooth. (Langer has no tolerance for disobedience of any kind.) He was slightly dubious about whether the procedure would work, despite the dentist’s assurances.
“I told him, ‘From your lips to God’s ear,’ ” Langer says.
I bite my tongue and suppress a giggle. I’m sure that many traditions can claim the phrase, but as far as I know its origin is pure Yiddish: Fun dayn meyl in Got’s oyern.
In other words, I don’t think Langer got that expression from Larry Moody. Now Howard Saperstein, that’s more likely.