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Langer defends Open title at Iverness

TOLEDO, Ohio – Bernhard Langer enjoyed his time spent at home while he rehabbed a thumb injury.

Now the defending U.S. Senior Open champion is honing his game and wants to not only compete, but get back to the winner’s circle.

“I’m trying to find my way back,” he said Wednesday on the eve of the 32nd U.S. Senior Open at Inverness Club.

Langer completed an improbable – and sleep-depriving – double dip a year ago when he won the Senior British Open at Carnoustie, then flew 4,500 miles to outduel Fred Couples and win the U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee near Seattle. Those back-to-back wins were part of five Champions Tour victories in 2010 that marked him as the top player among the over-50 crowd.

Then he was stopped by a traffic signal.

Riding bikes with his family to a beach in south Florida last fall, he punched the crossing button at an intersection but somehow tore a ligament in his left thumb.

Since then, Langer has battled pain and frustration. He won early this year at the ACE Group Classic, but then spent almost four months without effectively swinging a club. He returned to play the British Open two weeks ago but missed the cut. Last week, defending his title at the Senior British Open, he tied for 12th.

Still not completely healthy, the 53-year-old German says his thumb is “good enough to play” right now.

“I’ve been able to play the last two (weeks) without it getting worse, so that’s a good sign,” he said. “Weeks ago, whenever I started playing, it got worse. So I’m hopeful. It seems to be OK and holding up this week.”

With Langer still nursing his injury, Russ Cochran is trying to pull off the same double this year. He won the Senior British by two shots last week at Walton Heath, flew 8 1/2 hours back to the States and, after some celebrating at home in Paducah, Ky., finds himself chasing his second major title.

The fact that Langer pulled it off amazes him.

“That’s what people said: `Hey, you gonna do two in a row?”’ Cochran said, shaking his head. “That’s a tribute to the kind of guy he is, the discipline that he has, the kind of game he has and determination. I can’t imagine coming in here and just getting right back on track and having enough in the tank to win this week.”

In the quirky world of the senior tour, where majors are played on consecutive weeks, the older set has been battling jet lag as much as aches and pains.

John Cook, who finished 11th last week at the Senior British, isn’t a fan of the majors being so tightly grouped.

“I’d rather them not be together, I promise you that,” said Cook, an Ohio native and Ohio State grad who has won three times on the Champions Tour this year. “It’s probably our two big events. Unfortunately, that’s the way the schedule is, and that’s what they give us.”

That schedule changes next year when there’s a two-week gap between the two tournaments. But that won’t make things easier for anyone who has played on both continents the past two weeks.

Fatigue is just one small concern. The grueling Inverness layout presents a world of problems for the international field of 156 players.

Heavy rains in recent weeks have made the 7,143-yard course even longer. Everyone agrees that birdies can be found on the par-37 front side, but it’s a matter of survival on the par-34 back nine, which doesn’t include a par-5 hole. Factor in tiny greens – averaging just 5,700 square feet – and it’s no wonder the players are a bit apprehensive.

“The course is very demanding. The greens are probably the toughest you’ll find anywhere, as difficult as Augusta – maybe even harder at times,” said Langer, who has won the Masters twice. “It’s almost impossible to find a straight putt. And the greens are the smallest you’ll see on any golf course anywhere in the world.”

Yet several players embrace a return to an old-style course that has hosted many unforgettable moments. Inverness hosted U.S. Opens in 1920 (won by Ted Ray), 1931 (Billy Burke), 1957 (Dick Mayer) and 1979 (Hale Irwin). The 1920 Open was the first to not only permit but welcome pros to play for the title.

The course, on the National Register of Historic Places, also was the site of Bob Tway’s hole-out from a bunker on the 72nd hole to win the 1986 PGA Championship, and Paul Azinger beating Greg Norman (also victimized by Tway) in a playoff in the 1993 PGA.

“Winning the PGA Championship in the fashion that I won it and making that shot, that’s what everybody remembers,” said Tway, who’s been besieged by many autograph-seekers who swear they were present for his dramatic shot. “That, by far, is the highlight of my golf career, no doubt about it.”

Tom Lehman said it’s only natural for the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association to bring the Senior Open to an old club with such a rich history.

“You put those two entities together like peanut butter and jelly,” he said.