Bernhard Langer doesn’t look his age one bit. His face tanned from the sun, his body projects alertness, wiriness, fitness. However, Langer, now 60 years old, is well aware of his age these days. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t feel a pain somewhere in my body”, he says with a genteel smile.
Langer is still a model athlete, a pro who even earns more these days with his know-how than most pro football players. Last year you took home over three million dollars in prize money in the US alone, didn’t you? “I’m not exactly sure”, says Langer. He’s more interested in other things.
In an age when others feel their energy dwindling, the man is really turning up the gas. He won four times last year during the highly lucrative PGA Tour Champions in the US. He swept to victory in the US Masters in 1985 and 1993, and came close to winning for a third time last year. At the age of 58, he has already collected so much prize money in his long career that he couldn’t spend it all now if he tried. Of course, that’s partly due to the fact that a life of luxury isn’t really his cup of tea. It’s the sport that interests him. And he’s not ready to let go.
The eternal rival has long been an enigma to his opponents. His Spanish colleague José Maria Olazábal, who also racked up a Masters win, believes that the German is not subject to the normal laws of ageing. A few of them even openly admit that they’re happy when Langer doesn’t turn up for a tournament. “I can understand that they’re pleased when I don’t play”, says Langer.
Langer turned professional in the late 70s and by 1986 he’d already been named the world’s number one player. The man has been associated with the Mercedes-Benz brand for a long time and is without doubt a global superstar. At home, however, he’s practically faded into obscurity; he doesn’t do talk shows and he seldom attends receptions.
It’s not surprising, since Langer has been living with his family in Boca Raton, Florida for many years. He lives in a private club behind a gate that is only opened by the gatekeeper when Langer gives his consent. But no “American by choice” originating from Germany could have as much love for his home as Bernhard Langer, who comes from Anhausen, near Augsburg. Beside his own home, which is frequently vacant, stands his parents’ home. This is a simply constructed building where he grew up and where his much-loved mother Walburga and father Erwin - a bricklayer - raised their children Erwin, Maria and Bernhard. As a small boy, he used to cycle from there to the Burgwalden golf club so he would earn a few Deutschmarks as a caddy.
It's a route of about seven kilometres that first takes you through the village and past an inn where his mother worked as a waitress. The Langers were, as they say in Swabia, “ordentliche Leut” or “decent folk”. Still, the money didn’t stretch enough to give the kids an allowance.
From there the way to the golf club wound through the woods and on past a few ponds. That’s where his career as a “Bub” or “lad” began, as his mother called him. Once, when I visited her at home, we sat in her kitchen and she told me how she remembered the day Bernhard came to her and said, “Mama, I want to be a pro golfer.” She said it left her stunned. She told him, “There is no such job!” By the time she told me this anecdote, Bernhard Langer had already won the US Masters in Augusta for the second time, but for Walburga Langer he was and always will be the “Bub”.
As a person, Bernhard Langer has generally kept his head down in the public all these years. Some even find him unapproachable. He’s devoutly Christian, which is well known, and he has four children with his American wife Vikki, for whom he left his home in 2000. The decision to move to Florida was a tough one for Langer, very tough.
Golf is a game that relies on nuance, and Langer is a sensitive man. He’s always reacted sensitively to crises. Worries had an impact on his game, on his swings; there were several months when his hands shook so badly at times that even putts to the hole under 50 centimetres away became a challenge. Golfers call this condition the “yips” and it has ended the careers of more than a few pros in the sport.
Langer faced what was probably his toughest performance test in 1989, when he won the Spanish Open in El Saler near Valencia.
During the final round, his strongest rival was a little-known Englishman named Paul Carrigill. For someone like Langer, this was no reason to be nervous, had he only been able to control his hands. Langer solved the problem by developing a grip for putting that required him to bend far forward but then allowed him to control the putt using his forearms. And that’s how he conquered the shakes. The victory was his redemption.
Langer has always been strong-willed, a relentless adversary who maintains focus during tournaments until the last moment. His current game has lost none of this consistency. His great sense of humour and ability to laugh freely is not easy to see on the course. This other Bernhard is the person who mainly his family recognise. Once, when his brother Erwin’s wife, Sigi, was celebrating her birthday in Anhausen, he happened to be home. Bernhard arrived at the party wearing flip-flops; he was home, after all. He joined the group of people in his parents’ home singing the birthday girl a song. The two-time Masters winner was one guest among many and enjoyed every moment.
Thinking he was someone special and expecting preferential treatment was never an issue for Langer. Back in the 90s when he used to go skiing regularly in Zürs am Arlberg, he would get in line to take the ski-lift just like everyone else. Once he got to the top, however, there was no holding him back. Hans Rauchensteiner, a photographer based in Munich and a seasoned skier himself, flew after the golfer, his anorak fluttering behind and a camera around his neck. In the end, he managed to get his photos because Langer stopped to wait for him.
Langer’s empathy and dedication was evident when his American colleague Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer. “We all miss you” could be read on a poster which was sent to the major winner from a tournament in Phuket, Thailand. Langer had organised three of the best-known golfers of the early 90s to deliver personal greetings: Greg Norman, number one in the world, the Englishman Nick Faldo, and the American Fred Couples, who had just won the US Masters. It was a spontaneous act, a gesture.
Langer is always ready to lend a hand. Once, when we were all playing together in a Pro-Am tournament, he knelt behind me and held my leg to show me that I was pushing too much to the side during my swing. It isn’t every day that you get a Masters winner as your golf instructor.
I recently asked Bernhard Langer how many more years he plans to keep playing. “As long as it remains fun and my health permits”, he answered. After all these years, his passion is as fervent as ever.