My Shot

Bernhard Langer on overcoming the shanks, the yips and a bout with bugs in Portugal

January 15, 2019

How could so much good happen to one person? My father was a bricklayer. He worked 12-hour days in a post-war Germany that was very difficult. Our small town of Anhausen was in a farming region and was not a target of the Allied bombing, but life was hard and uncertain. My father built our house. When I was a boy, he would call on me to help him lay bricks. I would shovel the material for the mortar into a small mixing machine, then join him in laying the bricks, setting them carefully, one by one, using string to make sure everything was straight. I consider it a miracle to have come this far.

I BEGAN CADDIEING at age 8 at a course eight miles from our house. I rode my bicycle there. I remember waiting in a small shed with the other caddies, sitting on a bench and staring for hours at the only thing on the wall, a swing sequence of Jack Nicklaus. For years I didn’t know who Jack, Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan even were. There was almost no golf on TV, no golf books and a very small number of golf magazines. Golf was such a small sport. There were only a hundred or so courses in all of Germany.

WE CADDIES were given four hand-me-down clubs to share. There was a 2-wood, 3-iron and 7-iron, all with bamboo shafts, and a putter with a shaft bent like an archer’s bow. By the time I was 12, I saved enough money to buy a new set of Kroydon irons. They weren’t top of the line, but they were shiny, new and all mine. I added a Blue Goose model putter that had a small indentation in the head. It was a magical putter, and I quickly became the best putter at the course, Golfclub Augsburg, and possibly all of Germany. One day the putter went missing. I frantically went through the members’ bags, and sure enough, found my Blue Goose with the indentation. But I was in a terrible situation. I couldn’t confront the member—he surely would deny everything, and I would be fired. So I kept it to myself. I never did get the Blue Goose back. I’ve spent the past 50 years looking for a putter that suits me as well.

IN THE FIFTH GRADE, I was transferred to a better school than the one I was in, where four grades shared one classroom. The new school had a three-month academic probationary period. The train ride there and back meant I didn’t get home until 4 p.m., followed by homework until 9. There was no time for caddieing. This would not do. I immediately failed math and English—maybe on purpose—and was expelled. I went right back to caddieing and was happy again.

AT 15, after I finished my mandatory nine years of schooling, I went with my parents to what was known as the Institute of Job Placement. I told the man I wanted to be a golf professional. He said, “What’s that?” He had never heard of golf, except possibly miniature golf, which, oddly enough, was quite popular. I told him it was a profession similar to that of a tennis professional, in which you give lessons. He was puzzled and excused himself to look it up in a book. When he came back, he told me no such recognized profession existed in Germany. He said, quite sternly with my parents sitting there, “I would recommend you choose a more decent profession.” Sadly, my parents agreed with him. I left with my dream in pieces.

'One time, I four-putted from three feet. Several times, I double-hit putts, which is much harder to do than you might think.'

ONLY A FEW DAYS LATER, I got a job offer to be an assistant pro at the Munich Country Club. I had no experience except for caddieing. As a golfer, I learned by keeping score when I played alone that I was close to scratch. But I had played in only one competition, a one-day caddie tournament, which I won with a 75. Yet for some reason the pro, Heinz Fehring, hired me. Another miracle.

ONE DAY there was a money game with some members from my club. My monthly income was a very meager 150 Deutsche marks, about $50. The game happened to be for $50, a fortune to me. Warming up on the range, I shanked every iron shot, about 35 in a row. From wedges through the 2-iron, every ball went sideways. I was in a panic and tried unsuccessfully to have the stakes lowered. Fortunately for me, the first hole was a par 5 that required two good wood shots. You cannot shank a wood, and just seeing the ball go straight settled me down. I shot 68, not shanking once, and won much more than 150 Deutsche marks.

JACK NICKLAUS, the man pictured on the wall of the caddie shack, played an exhibition at Munich Country Club in about 1973. I was one of three German players invited to join him—the other two were amateurs. There was great pressure not to embarrass myself. The way Jack hit the golf ball was almost beyond my comprehension. He flew the ball over the corners of the doglegs and hit the ball so high. The day was a blur. I recall hitting a shank on one hole that just missed tearing a member’s head off. On another hole, I pulled a 3-iron and actually did hit a lady member, leaving a purple bruise on her shoulder. The ball deflected onto the green, and after apologizing profusely, I made the putt for eagle. Jack laughed and shook his head. After the round, a reporter asked him what he thought of the young German pro. “He’s got a big heart,” Jack said, “but he’s got a long way to go.”

Langer, Bernhard mit Pokalen

Langer slept in his car before finding success on the European tour and winning in 1980.

Brauner/Ullstein/Getty Images

I BUILT MY SWING similar to how my father built our house: brick by brick, trying to make sure everything was straight. Many players in those days had very unusual swings—Eamonn Darcy, Miller Barber and Hubert Green are good examples. But my swing, other than a strong grip, was fairly ordinary. I guess that’s a miracle, too.

WHEN I VENTURED OUT on the European Tour at age 18, I slept in my car many times because I couldn’t afford a hotel. The seats in my Ford Escort wouldn’t recline flat, and the temperature during the night sometimes would fall 30 degrees. I would wake up shivering. But it beat some of the dollar-a-night lodgings in Spain and Portugal, which were infested with bugs. I ate poorly. I didn’t feel like a professional athlete, that’s for sure. It was demoralizing, but I stayed with it.

I TELL MY FOUR CHILDREN these stories of hardship to inspire them, to let them know that things don’t come easily. They listen appreciatively, but I can tell by the looks on their faces that they just can’t relate.

THE BEST BALL-STRIKER I’ve seen in my 47 years as a professional? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Greg Norman at their peaks were incredible, but my choice would be Johnny Miller. I played with him in the 1974 Italian Open, and I still have never seen anything quite like it. There was a stretch of nine consecutive holes where he very nearly tore the cup out with every iron shot. The sound, the trajectory, the distance control was quite breathtaking. Strangely, he did not win the tournament. He finished second behind Peter Oosterhuis. But his golf that day is the golf I see when I close my eyes and dream.

SPEAKING OF JOHNNY, he had the yips, too. I actually had them four times. One time, I four-putted from three feet. Several times I double-hit putts, which is much harder to do than you might think. I overcame them with different putting methods and lots of willpower, but to this day I’m not sure if it’s physical or mental. I’m not sure anyone else has figured it out, either.

IF YOU AND I went to the practice green and had a contest putting conventionally, I probably would beat you. I’m not saying you’re a bad putter, just that I have good touch, great hand-eye coordination and sound technique. But if we were playing against each other in a tournament, there is a good chance you would beat me badly. The yips are a tournament disease, and they show up at the worst time.

YOU KNOW that Seve Ballesteros loved beating the Americans in the Ryder Cup, but truth is, he liked to beat everybody. He was a good fellow and a great competitor. At the European Open at Walton Heath, 1980, I was on the putting green and struggling. Seve came over, watched me putt for a minute, then asked to try my Bulls Eye putter. He made a couple of strokes and said, “This putter is too light and does not have enough loft.” I walked straight into the pro shop, but nothing like that was for sale. The assistant pro directed me to a bag of old clubs. There I found another Bulls Eye, a heavy flange model, which I took to the putt-ing green and liked. I tied for fifth that week, and less than a month later won the Dunlop Masters for my first European Tour victory. Many rounds after that I would have a better score than Seve, and I always seemed to putt well against him. He would look at my putter with an expression that said, I should have kept my mouth shut.

IN 1981, no one in America knew who I was. I was invited to play in the World Series of Golf, and the week before, I was playing in the Benson & Hedges International in England and hit my ball into a tree. I climbed the tree and played the shot, something fans had never seen before. The film found its way to America, and all week at the World Series, I kept hearing shouts of, “Look, it’s the man in the tree!” On the first day, the fans sang “Happy Birthday” to me on the first tee. I had never had a reception quite like that. I instantly became very fond of America.

I LOVE AMERICA and live here but have not yet become a citizen. I have a green card. President Trump for some reason thought I had tried to vote in the 2016 election, talked about me being turned away. I have no idea how he got that idea. It probably was a situation where one person says something, it is spread to another person and then another, and by the time it reaches the sixth person—in this case the president—it is completely twisted. To assume I would even try to vote is quite ridiculous. But President Trump, to his credit, called me and apologized. I appreciated that.

Augusta National Archive

Langer, shown at the 1989 Masters, won Green Jackets in 1985 and 1993.

Augusta National/Getty Images

I NEVER CHANGED MY SWING drastically, all at once. Nick Faldo did it successfully, but it cost him two years. My grip was very strong, and it needed changing, but my coach, Willy Hoffman, suggested I weaken it an eighth of an inch at a time, over the course of years. The upside—and I’m proud of this—is that I never had a career drop-off. I was always able to keep winning.

AT KIAWAH in the 1991 Ryder Cup, I missed a six-foot putt on the final green to clinch the victory. It was devastating because I let my teammates down. The next week was the German Masters, a tournament I helped found. On the final hole, I faced a 15-footer to get into a playoff. Two voices were in my head. One said, You missed a six-footer last week; what makes you think you can make a 15-footer now? The other voice said, The past is irrelevant; you will make this putt. The second voice must have been louder, because I made the putt and then defeated Rodger Davis in the playoff. Since that time, I’ve managed to quiet the first voice.

THE THIRD ROUND of the 1985 Masters, I was six strokes behind playing the 13th hole and going nowhere. The night before, I’d changed the shafts in all my irons, trying to find a spark, but it wasn’t looking good. My drive on 13 went too far right and wound up on bare ground near the pines, my ball sitting down. I had 220 to the green, a very long way back then. The odds of getting a 3-wood over the creek were small, but I was a little fed up and desperate to get in contention. The shot was awful, didn’t get more than two feet off the ground. The tournament was over for me. Except that in those days there was a single, small mound short of the creek. My ball hit the center of the mound, jumped into the air like a little ski jumper, flew over the creek and settled on the green, 50 feet from the hole. I made the putt for eagle, birdied two more holes coming in, and shot 68. I was only two shots out of the lead and shot another 68 on Sunday to win by two over Seve, Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange. It’s incredible breaks like this that often decide tournaments, and alter careers.

'The day [playing with Jack Nicklaus for the first time] was a blur. I recall hitting a shank on one hole that just missed tearing a member’s head off.'

I'M VERY SENTIMENTAL. Not so much about material things, as I didn’t save the red outfit I wore when I won the 1985 Masters, or the old Kroydon irons, or any of the balls I holed out to win 112 tournaments on six continents. But I cry during movies all the time. Just last week, I watched the movie “Instant Family,” about a couple that adopts three troubled young children, siblings. I didn’t even try to stop the tears.

I WON THE 1993 MASTERS by four, and it wasn’t quite as dramatic, though my lead at one point dwindled to one. The big moment was during the interview in Butler Cabin. In 1985, during my interview with Hord Hardin, I took the Lord’s name in vain. Two days later at Hilton Head, I became a born-again Christian. I always regretted my comment in 1985, and in 1993, I got my chance. Jim Nantz asked me how it felt to win a second time, and I said, “It’s always very special to win the greatest tournament in the world, especially on Easter Sunday, when my Lord was resurrected.” I realize many people dislike hearing a religious note from athletes, and most aren’t sure exactly why. But my faith is the most important facet of my life, and I will never change.

I HAVE WON 38 TIMES on the PGA Tour Champions, second only to Hale Irwin, who has won 45 times. I have won 10 senior majors, which is very good. I am still improving. My putting, chipping and bunker play are better than when I was 50. I am much wiser. But I am not ageless. My energy level is not quite the same, and my strength and flexibility have decreased. I must address them. You say I look to be in great shape, but I weigh 165 pounds. I wouldn’t mind losing 10 pounds.

THERE ARE THOSE who insist I anchor with my putter. I am the only one who would truthfully know, because I can feel when my uppermost hand is touching my chest and when it isn’t. And I assure you, it is not touching. Part of the issue is my shirt, which billows away from my chest when I bend over at address. As I draw my hand close at address, the shirt bunches and wrinkles, which suggests one of my knuckles is against my chest. I wish the people who made these accusations against me and Scott McCarron would have come to us first instead of speculating. There is an issue of honesty and integrity, and in that respect I can only say, I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I were breaking a rule.


Langer has won the PGA Tour Champions' season-long Charles Schwab Cup race a record five times. (Photos: Getty Images)

THERE IS A THIRD ISSUE at work here: jealousy. There are many players who use a long putter and similar style, but the suspicion was directed at only Scott McCarron and me because we were at the top of the money list. A number of other long-putter users have not been scrutinized as closely, because for now they aren’t at the very top. It’s an unfortunate part of human nature that we target those who are having the most success.

I AM KNOWN for making good on-course decisions, but I’ve made a few that are world-class dumb. I was leading a European Open on a Sunday one year and hit a shot into tall heather 20 yards short of the green. To my shock, I find the ball perched perfectly atop the heather, at knee height. What a great break! I promptly whiff with my next swing, and the ball sinks six inches lower, borderline unplayable but worth having a go at it. I whiff that one, too, and the ball now dives to the bottom of the heather. I gouge that one out and eventually make 7. I lose. That was more painful than the 10 I made in Hawaii once, botching a series of shots off lava, or the five thrashes I made at Cypress Point trying to dislodge my ball from ice plant.

WHILE SERVING my compulsory military service in the German Air Force, I injured my back. Stress fracture and bulging disk, so severe I couldn’t move from my bed for weeks. At 19, I thought my golf was finished. The doctors approached me several times, wanting to operate, but something told me not to go through with it. And then the injury healed itself. Another blessing, but it frightened me. To this day, I do one-arm planks practically every day, making small adjustments to make sure it strengthens my core.

COULD I STILL WIN the Masters? We all say we can, but I confess it is doubtful. I average 282 yards with my driver—pretty impressive, except when I play against guys who drive it 330. I could have a great week and wedge the par 5s to death like Zach Johnson did, but while I’m putting for birdie, the kids are putting for eagle. I also have much longer clubs into the par 4s. We should change the subject, because I’m beginning to talk myself out of it.