The quiet resilience of Bernard Langer
Bernhard Langer was 15 years old when he had his first attack of the yips. Asked later how he kept up his spirits after missing two-footers, Langer replied: “I take encouragement from those rare days when I don’t four-putt.”
As a misser of two-footers, I read that sentence painfully. Through the years, Langer would face four prolonged battles with the yips, the last in 1997, which should give all of us the solace of that famous Yiddish golf tip: gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass.
I asked Bernhard the same question recently. “When you go through it, it’s depressing, disheartening,” he said. “You know if it goes on, you’ll be done. Two things helped me in those times: The knowledge that I was a good ball-striker, one of the best on tour. I knew if I kept trying, I would figure it out. And second, my faith in God.” He also experimented with different putting styles, leading eventually to his embrace of the long putter.
Langer is to Europe what Byron Nelson was to the American tour: one of the co-founders, a dependable iron player, a tournament winner of enormous integrity and a God-fearing gentleman. Unlike Nelson, he came early to the tour and stayed. Langer turned pro at 15, won his first tournament at 17, and 47 years later is still winning on the Champions Tour.
Dan Jenkins used to describe him in casual conversation as “the son of a Czech bricklayer who settled in Anhausen, Germany, after he leaped from a Russian POW train at the end of the Second World War.” But “Fritzie” was his nickname on the nascent European Tour. He might have had the delicate look of a Nordic tennis player in those days, but right below the surface was the cold resolve of a submarine commander.
The old story that summed him up was told by our mutual friend Peter Dobereiner. After a tournament at the Aga Khan’s course on Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, there was a bus waiting to take the players to the airport in Cagliari, but two over-served pros were not to be found, and the bus left without them. Sardinia was a scary place back then, a hotbed of the Mafia, marauding pirates and kidnappers. The bus trip was long and remote through mountains and thick brush. “A bandito could crouch in this maquis and be invisible to pursuers a yard away,” Dobereiner told us. This was the old European Tour that bred killers the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Sam Torrance.
About an hour along, two disheveled figures appeared on the road and the bus driver stopped to pick up the missing pros, barefoot, with torn and bloodied clothes. They collapsed into the back seat and implored the driver to go like hell. With safety the paramount question, an argument ensued among the tour pros about how best to repel a boarding. Dobers said the conclusion was unanimous: “Fritzie! Go and sit by the door.” They escaped with their lives, but it proved to be a formula the Euros used often in coming Ryder Cups. At the darkest moments, send Fritzie to sit by the door.
I was paired with Bernhard as my partner in the Rolex pro-am at the Senior British Open this summer, and I asked him about that story. “I think I was just naive and sat where they told me,” he said. He played beautifully in the pro-am at Royal Lytham. His swing had the same tempo as I recall from the 1980s when I wrote a couple of instruction pieces with him in Golf Digest—the backswing paused just short of parallel at the top now, but transitioned downward briskly like Tom Watson, with a short rebound of the shaft at the end. He hit every iron at the target, just as I remembered when he won his two Masters. In the pro-am, I contributed a couple of net birdies at the end and we finished second to Monty. Over lunch he said, “You have a pretty good swing,” in that clipped German accent. My 12-handicap looked at him and laughed. He said, “No. I don’t say things I don’t believe.” (So now, like Bill Murray’s encounter with the Dalai Lama, I’ve got that going for me.) Langer went on to win the Senior Open by two strokes for his 40th victory on the Champions Tour, just five behind Hale Irwin’s record. Bernhard attributes his longevity to taking breaks from the game. Soccer used to be his getaway recreation; pickleball and pingpong are it now.
Naturally the day we spent together I paid close attention to his putting, which has come under scrutiny by some fellow-competitors who think the butt end of his long putter touches his sternum in violation of the anchoring rule. I can assure you, it’s close—maybe two inches—but it never touches. For one thing, it would be like accusing Byron Nelson of cheating. Inconceivable. It’s Fritzie’s success that blurs the vision of his accusers. In my mind, he will always be the one you can count on. The man who sits by the door.