Another PGA Tour Champions season has commenced – Hawaii in the books, Morocco next week, with Naples, Florida, on deck after that – which means 65-year-old Bernhard Langer, scratched up hardhat, dusty overalls and dented lunch pail in tow, is back on the job. There is nowhere he would rather be. An accomplished man and golfer, Langer has no concept of cruise control; he works diligently each day on every small detail of his craft, toiling much like a factory employee who, at sunset, quietly has produced more than any other worker on the line.
For all the newer, promising faces on the PGA Tour Champions – Steven Alker, Steve Stricker and Pádraig Harrington leading the way – there is no more interesting study than Langer. The elder to those names above by more than a decade, Langer not only keeps showing up, but keeps winning. If it indeed is true that Father Time stands undefeated, then Langer, who turns 66 in August, at least has figured out a way to extend him to extra holes. Really, is there a greater marvel anywhere, at any level, in all of golf?
Langer always has relished being one of the last men standing on a Sunday afternoon with a big trophy on the line. The son of a bricklayer who grew up very modestly in post-World War II Germany – forget not owning a car, the Langer family rarely owned a bicycle – Langer enjoys the process of stepping back from a job at sunset to see what he has constructed with his day. Trophies are not the only weighed objects that can tip his scales; history is now on the line, too. Langer is on the threshold of becoming the winningest golfer in the history of golf’s 50-plus circuit.
One victory by Langer would tie Hale Irwin, who collected 45 PGA Tour Champions victories from 1995 to 2021, the last arriving early in 2007. Two victories, and Langer will have surpassed every other senior player. That’s the target. Langer sees no reason why he would not reach the summit. To keep pushing forward, he says there are three boxes to check: Is he healthy? Is he enjoying what he is doing? Is he successful? He checks all three with a thick, emphatic mark. Next up: History.
“The closer we get,” Langer said last week, “the more realistic it becomes, and now it’s very realistic. Especially when I look back the last two or three years. I lost several playoffs, or I was in contention in a bunch of tournaments that I didn’t win. I could have surpassed him.”
All in good time, which is the very essence of this chase. Time. Langer has kept himself in terrific shape, not too far off his playing weight when he was collecting titles on the European Tour and PGA Tour, which included a pair of green jackets from the Masters. Langer was the first golfer to be No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking (good pub-trivia fodder), represented Europe in 10 Ryder Cups as a player (and one more as a winning captain at Oakland Hills), and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001.
“I have a distinct disadvantage with hitting the ball shorter than many of my colleagues, and have to make that up somewhere else, either in accuracy or short game or putting or whatever you may call it.” – Bernhard Langer
To exactly no one’s surprise, he stayed competitive among the over-50 set when he joined the PGA Tour Champions. Normally, new faces step in to replace the older ones as skills diminish and fade. It’s the simple law of the senior golf jungle. Today, those new faces still arrive. Langer just never steps aside. He enjoys the challenge of keeping his feisty challengers from scaling the castle wall, always finding a way. Once a top 10 player in distance, Langer dipped to 63rd on tour in driving distance (271.9 yards) last season. Harrington led the tour at 308.7 yards.
“I have a distinct disadvantage with hitting the ball shorter than many of my colleagues, and have to make that up somewhere else, either in accuracy or short game or putting or whatever you may call it,” Langer said. “Or course strategy. But the unique thing in golf is that there are ways sometimes to make that up.”
Langer leads the league in Strokes Gained: Finding a Way. He collected his 44th victory last autumn (TimberTech Championship) not far from his adopted Florida home in his 315th career start on PGA Tour Champions; Irwin won 45 titles in 481 career starts. Given Langer’s grit and tenacity, it was little surprise he has kept on winning. Now when he wins, he is the oldest player to do so. When he won TimberTech at 64, he became the oldest man to win a Champions title – breaking his own mark. And now Langer is starting to shoot his age more frequently. Why, that’s just showing off.
“I think the rule of thumb out here is about 57 or 58 (years old) is kind of when guys start to tail off,” Champions Tour competitor Kevin Sutherland once said when asked about Langer’s longevity. “Obviously, he (Langer) didn’t get that memo.”
When Harrington tested the over-50 waters in late 2021, he proved he was longer off the tee than pretty much everyone. There is much more to the game than simply pounding it long, though. Harrington knows this, acknowledging immediately that his wedge game needed to improve before he could win. When Harrington got thumped by Langer in one start that fall, he said, “Bernhard made me look like an amateur golfer.” Harrington likes to call Langer, his former Ryder Cup captain, “a pro’s pro.”
Irwin won his 45th event in 2007, right around the time Langer was coming on board against the 50-and-older set. Forty-five titles? That seemed a tiny speck on a faraway horizon when Langer first started winning. Before too long, Langer was passing 10 victories, 20 victories, then 30, and then 40. He won No. 44 last autumn in a PGA Tour Champions playoff event. Langer has won 11 times since turning 60 (eight more than Irwin won in his 60s) and has won two times in each of the past four seasons, including two titles in 2022 (Chubb Classic, TimberTech).
Langer had injured his back at 19 while serving in the German Air Force. Lugging around a heavy backpack and rifle, Langer incurred a stress fracture and bulging disk.
At the outset of the 2022 season, Langer lost his longtime coach and tutor, Willy Hoffman, a man whose wisdom had guided Langer since he was a teenage club professional apprentice in Germany. One pivotal suggestion Hoffman made to Langer early on along their road together: Langer was in his early days as a touring pro, in his 20s or early 30s, when Hoffman suggested to Langer he needed to change his swing.
Langer had learned to play using a popular technique of his day, which was finishing with an arching, somewhat violent reverse “C” that Johnny Miller and others of that era used. Langer had injured his back at 19 while serving in the German Air Force. Lugging around a heavy backpack and rifle, Langer incurred a stress fracture and bulging disk. Hoffman told him he would face more problems ahead with that swing. So gradually, almost brick by brick, the teacher and pupil would work together to change, with Langer crafting a more rounded swing that would stand up to time.
“I can remember him saying, I can’t recall the day exactly, he said something like, ‘We’re going to have to change your technique a little bit, because I still want you to play well in your 40s and your 50s and your 60s and your 70s.’ … I think that’s down to Willy Hoffman’s foresight, and he’s taught me a swing, I think, that will go on for a long time … probably as long as I live.”
Which, knowing Langer, might just be forever. It was prescient advice imparted by Hoffman, the kind of sage observation that just might have helped to place Bernhard Langer into the history books.
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