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Maybe Bernhard Langer is getting old, but winning sure isn't


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November 22, 2016

Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer have shared a bond since their climatic singles match to decide the 1991 Ryder Cup. As Irwin said last week when reached at his home in Colorado, “Bernhard and I have been connected ever since.”

Twenty-five years after their match was halved when Langer missed a six-footer for par on the 18th hole to give the U.S. a 14½-13½ victory, the two men find themselves at another intersection in golf history. It might not be as memorable as the epic War By The Shore, but it’s becoming a growing part of the legacies of two gritty Hall of Famers: their incredible records as senior golfers.

For each, it’s a point of pride.

“Absolutely it is,” said Irwin, 71. “It’s something I’m very, very proud of.”

Langer, who turned 59 on Aug. 27, has also taken great satisfaction from his now-10-year body of work. In 2016, he added a third-straight Charles Schwab Cup (and fourth overall) after figuring out a way to beat the USGA anchored putting ban. He won four times to tie Lee Trevino for second place all-time with 29 victories. Far in the distance stands Irwin’s total of 45.

I caught up with Langer four days after he’d returned home to Boca Raton, Fla. More than anything, I wanted to know if Irwin’s all-time record is motivation, and if Langer thought he could hold off Father Time long enough to get it.

The two-time Masters champion admitted the record is “possible but very unlikely. … Let’s face it, I’m gonna be in my 60s real soon, and not too many guys have won 16 times in their 60s. But it is possible. I could win three, four or five every year.”

The biggest consideration for the still-lean-and-fit Langer is staying healthy. Setbacks like the minor knee injury that this year cost him a playoff event might become more frequent as he gets older. But other than a bicycle accident that caused him to take two months off in 2011, Langer hasn’t missed many reps.

And though Irwin lost his competitive desire after becoming a grandfather and winning three times in his early 60s, Langer doesn’t see that happening to him. He’s talking about adding events when he and wife of 31 years, Vikki, become empty nesters as all four of their children have reached adult age. “I don’t think the drive will ever go away,” he said, “because that’s just how I’m made up.”

Langer takes confidence from having successfully addressed his putting issue. His putting average this year was actually one one-thousandth of a point better than 2015. He is almost certainly a better putter now than he was at the 1991 Ryder Cup, leading Irwin to say, “The one thing some people may question is the long putter. Has it been helpful? Of course it’s helped.”

Another element I found interesting talking to Irwin and Langer was how they interpreted each other’s careers. Irwin has played an amazing 457 PGA Tour Champions tournaments. Langer has had only 187 starts, and points out that Irwin had a 42-tournament schedule, while he has been limited to a schedule containing around 26 events.

Langer even mentioned that Irwin, at 67, played one more tour event than he did just four years ago. Although Irwin sees Langer as a golf machine “wired to do the everyday thing,” the German attributes his success to being “balanced.”

“We’re just different,” says Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open champion and former defensive back at the University of Colorado, while conceding to one similarity other than their Ryder Cup connection: the late-career domination for which Irwin holds the standard. “Bernhard is probably better now against the players he’s played against for a long time,” he said.

No argument there.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Nov. 21, 2016 issue of Golf World.