Bernhard Langer's pursuit of elusive record has gotten harder during hiatus—and why he's not bothered
Even with life on hold, the clock keeps running, and for those of a certain age it seems as though it is running sprints. Psychologists call it proportional theory, noting that for a 5-year-old, a year takes forever, but for a 55-year-old, a year is a considerably smaller percentage of his lifespan and passes in a blur.
What does this have to do with golf? Maybe everything in the case of Bernhard Langer and his pursuit of what once seemed an unattainable record: Hale Irwin’s 45 career victories on the PGA Tour Champions.
Langer reached win No. 41 in early March, only to watch months race by without his even having a chance at No. 42 and unable to stop the clock. There are no timeouts in golf.
The senior tour’s COVID-19 stoppage already has erased eight tournaments from the 2020 schedule. Given Langer’s torrid start to 2020—four top-six finishes in five tournaments—it is not unreasonable to have expected him to contend in many of those eight, maybe most, and even possibly winning one or two.
Then there’s this: Time, not an ally before the hiatus, is notably less of one now. Langer is 62 and closing fast on 63, his birthday coming only a few weeks after the senior tour is scheduled to resume at the end of July. No player has ever won a senior tour event past his 63rd birthday. The oldest winner ever was Mike Fetchick, who on his 63rd birthday won the Hilton Head Seniors Invitational in 1985.
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Time is short, though Langer doesn’t see it that way. He is too grounded to have ever considered taking a flight of fancy in the first place.
“Several years ago, looking at Hale’s 45 wins, I thought, ‘This will never be broken,’” Langer said recently in a phone interview from his South Florida home. [Photo below is Irwin winning No. 45.] Langer conceded that “the likelihood increases” with each win, but it has not altered his way of thinking.
“My main goal is not to break Hale Irwin’s record. My goal is to be the best that Bernhard Langer can be. My goal is to stay healthy, to enjoy the game and be the best player I can be and work on my weaknesses.”
Hale Irwin celebrates his 45th PGA Tour Champions win at the 2007 MasterCard Championship at Hualalai.
A World Golf Hall of Fame member whose resume includes two Masters victories, Langer has been among the rare seniors who has aged well. A few months before his 50th birthday, he lost the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in a playoff. He has made the cut in four of the last six Masters, including a tie for eighth in 2014 and a tie for 24th in 2018.
“People think it’s just one thing,” Langer said of his longevity. “It’s a lot of things, as you can imagine. First of all you’ve got to be healthy to do the thing you want to do and to swing the club the way you want to. Fortunately, I’ve not had a lot of major setbacks or surgeries. I’ve enjoyed working out all my life.
“At the same time, I have fairly good genes from my parents, and I have a good team around me. I’ve worked with Willy Hoffman from Germany since my 18th birthday, so 44 years of that is probably beneficial.
“You’re always trying to improve. You have to make changes, but there are small changes that can bear good results. Sometimes people change dramatically and it doesn’t work out. They go through different swing coaches and two years later they fall off the planet. I’ve been fortunate with Willy. He had the foresight in telling me what to do. Even at 20 and 30 he said, ‘I want you to be playing good in your 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.’ I said, ‘I don’t really care about that right now,’ but he mentioned this over and over.”
Aging, nonetheless, has assessed a toll, though Langer’s ability to acknowledge it has helped diminish the cost. The years have whittled away yardage off the tee, “but I’m trying to compensate with better iron play and chipping and putting,” he said.
His focus occasionally wanders, he said, unlike his early years, so Langer has worked on mitigating the effects with a mental on-and-off switch, “so you have enough in the tank when you need it.” The sum of the parts has been a long post-PGA Tour career that was not wholly unexpected, but still was somewhat of a surprise to him.
“I was hoping to be one of the top three or five players out there for a number of years,” he said. “I had had a fairly good career up to that point. At 49-and-a-half, I was in a playoff at Fort Worth, so I was still competitive. I was hoping to be one of the better players. But I had no idea it would turn out the way it turned out.
“The stats say most guys win between 50 and 54 or 55, and by the time they turn 60 nobody wins. I was trying to be one of those exceptions. Tom Watson was one of those exceptions. So was Sam Snead and Hale Irwin.”
But extending exceptionalism in a career that already has surpassed its use-by date will be a challenge amplified by the hiatus and the unending stream of talented 50-year-olds signing on, including Ernie Els, already a senior winner, and Jim Furyk, who just turned 50.
Time is on their side, while for Langer and others of his generation, watching the days and weeks and months blow by at a pace that measures 15 on the Stimpmeter, it is more an obstacle than an ally.