At 58, Langer continues to defy odds at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerApril 10, 2016, 1:01 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – “Hello, everybody,” Bernhard Langer said late Saturday afternoon, reclining in his chair behind the podium in the Augusta National interview room. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here.”

Sorry, he was having a senior moment.

It was actually just two years ago that Langer played well enough to sit in this very room, in front of many of the same reporters, and attempted to explain how a Champions Tour player could possibly contend with all of the kids in a major championship.

These are familiar queries, of course. In 2013, he was tied for ninth heading into the final round here. A year later, he moved only two shots off the lead with 10 holes to play, but he didn’t adjust to the slower green speeds when it began to rain. He tied for eighth, the second-best finish by a player his age.

And so here we were again Saturday at Augusta, the aging warrior on the leaderboard, paired with the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Jason Day. Despite spotting his fellow playing competitor nearly 80 yards on some holes, Langer outscored Day, 70-71, and now will enter the final round of the 80th Masters in the penultimate group, only two shots off Jordan Spieth’s lead.

That's right: Two.

At 58 years, 7 months and 14 days, Langer would shatter the record for the oldest major champion in history – by, oh, more than a decade.

“I’m just trying to have fun, enjoy my last few years as a professional golfer and do the best I can,” he said.

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In his 33rd Masters appearance, Langer has more starts here than any of the other top six players on the leaderboard combined.

Add up the ages of Spieth (22), Smylie Kaufman (24) and Hideki Matsuyama (22). Together, they’re only a decade older than Langer.

Langer won his first Masters in 1985. Day was born two years later.

Langer won his second Masters in 1993. Spieth was born three months later.

It defies logic. How can a 58-year-old who averaged only 267 yards off the tee contend at the brutally long Augusta National? How can a 58-year-old with a decades-long battle with the yips survive these treacherous greens?

“We’re not playing tennis or soccer or football where it all comes down to speed and strength,” Langer said. “Golf is a lot more about knowing yourself and your technique. Just thinking your way around the golf course and then execution. There’s still other ways of doing it.”

And he has always done it his way.

One of the many keys to Langer's longevity has been his dutiful commitment to fitness. He is 5-foot-9 and a wiry 160 pounds – a stark contrast to some of his potbellied peers on the senior circuit – and showing no signs of breaking down physically.

“Look at him compared to the other guys on the Champions Tour,” said Dr. Norbert Dehoust, who has worked with Langer for the past decade. “He’s in such good shape.

“If you know him, and you know how he’s working at it, then you’re not surprised by this. Some of the other guys could do this as well, if they had the same habits and the same attitude. He’s so strict and focused.”

But Langer has also shown a willingness to adapt, to adjust, to reinvent himself, even if out of necessity.

Having struggled with the yips since he was 18, Langer has toyed with every grip and putter imaginable. When he won his first green jacket, in 1985, he used a conventional grip for longer putts and a cross-handed style for the shorter ones. When he won again, in ’93, he clutched the putter and his thumb against his left forearm, a grip called the Bavarian stranglehold.

“You don’t get bonuses looking pretty,” he said then.

In 1998, with his confidence in shambles, Langer switched to a broom-handle putter. Shoving the butt of the club into his sternum, he swung the long wand like a pendulum, a stroke that limited his wrist movement and used the larger muscles. He putted with this method with remarkable success, winning a whopping 25 times on the senior circuit.

But on Jan. 1, golf’s governed bodies, citing a “tremendous spike” in usage, enforced a rule that banned the anchored stroke, forcing Langer and roughly 15 percent of his peers to find a new method. He says he’s tried anywhere from 20 to 30 new putters with different grips – conventional, cross-handed, claw – and some of them even worked. But in the end, he returned to what felt most comfortable: He uses a long putter that is anchored while he addresses the ball, but then he moves his left hand slightly away from his sternum and strokes the putt.

“After putting so many hours into it,” he said, “it’s difficult to change now.”

It has led to a few uncomfortable moments on the Champions Tour. Only under close examination can it be determined that Langer’s left hand isn’t affixed to his body. He has drawn more than a couple of suspicious looks from his peers, and earlier this year he even needed to explain his intent to a tour official.

The thing is, Langer’s ball-striking is so pure, and so consistent, that he needs only to putt decently to succeed. In five senior starts this year, he has a win, a third and three other top-10s.

Augusta National figured to serve as the ultimate measuring stick for his revamped stroke, with its wildly undulating greens and off-the-charts speed because of the 25-mph gusts. But Langer hasn’t flinched, ranking 11th this week in putting.

At 58, Greg Norman nearly won the 2008 Open Championship. A year later, 59-year-old Tom Watson was one soft bounce from taking the Open at Turnberry.

“It’s going to happen sooner or later,” Langer said of an over-50 major winner. “The guys are staying fit. There are more athletes. They are taking care of themselves. It’s just a matter of time.”

And so now, it is his opportunity to turn back the clock, shooting the second-best round of the day on a course that was supposedly too long, too firm and too difficult for the old guys.

Paired with Day, Langer spotted the world No. 1 an average of 48 yards off the tee in the third round. On the par-5 second, Langer needed to step on a 3-wood just to wind up short of the green. Day hit 7-iron.

It was like that all day – Day wailing away on driver, Langer smartly navigating his way around a course he’s played about 200 times. The old-timer still birdied each of the four par 5s.

Someone asked Langer whether it seemed like they were playing different games.

“Yeah, we are,” he said with a smile. “But the scorecard doesn’t show it always.”

Langer saved bogey on the last, knocking in a 7-footer on the crusty green. The crowd roared and rose for a second standing ovation. The scorecard showed Langer 70, Day 71.

“It just goes to show how competitive he is,” Day said. “To be able to be a 58-year-old man, be competitive with us and want it as much as he did 40 years ago is pretty impressive.”

Vikki Langer was at Augusta all those years ago, when her wavy-haired husband slipped into a pair of green jackets.

It’s more thrilling now, she said. More unexpected, too, seeing his name near the top of the leaderboard at age 58. But it’s not unbelievable.

“Winning is not out of his capability, anywhere,” she said. “It never is. He knows he can win, and that’s kind of fun. He’s always going for it.”

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.