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.
Want some perspective?
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.
“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.”