This 65-year-old with bad knees is the golfer we all should aspire to be
Bernhard Langer is often described as “ageless” or “superhuman.” He is, of course, neither of these things — he turns 66 next month and he feels the inexorable aches and pains of aging just like you, or your parents or their parents. That much was clear at the U.S. Senior Open on Sunday evening as Langer kneeled on the 18th green to snap some photos of the silver trophy he’d just won. As Langer prepared to rise from his crouched position, he looked around for some help.
“I’ve got two bad knees, for those of you who don’t know, and it hurts bending down and staying down,” he said later. “When I have dinner and I sit for an hour or something and get up, it’s hard to get up. That’s just been that way for a number of years.”
There was no reason to doubt Langer, but he ran the numbers anyway.
“Reading putts is very difficult because I figure I’m bending down 200 times a day or for 18 holes at least — that’s a lot of bending down,” he said. “Then I read, if you go downhill, from a tee box you go down the hill, it’s 20 times your body weight. So for easy math, if you’re 200 pounds, that’s 4,000 pounds on the knee joint when you walk downhill. Imagine how many times I’ve walked downhill in the last 50 years on Tour. The body’s taken a beating, no doubt about it. I feel it just like everybody else.”
And yet he has endured it, like no golfer before him — at least not in terms of performing at an elite level at such an advanced age. Tournament after tournament, year after year, descent after descent. In the nearly 16 years since he turned 50, Langer has won a now-record 46 times on the PGA Tour Champions, including a dozen major titles. On Sunday, on a course choked by rough so thick that the field could barely advance their balls with wedges, Langer became the oldest player — by eight years — to win a U.S. Senior Open, so thoroughly outplaying his competition that he could afford to bogey the last three holes and still win by two. Said Langer’s caddie, Terry Holt, “I can’t put into words how incredible that is.”
If you’re 25, you might not fully appreciate the incredibleness of it. If you’re 35, there’s a better chance that you do. Forty-five? Langer’s not your contemporary but given you’ve reached an age when body parts unexpectedly start to hurt when you get out of bed, you likely have a healthy amount of respect for Langer’s staying power. Fifty-five or older? You’re in full-blown awe of the guy. Or at least you should be.
We all should be, age be damned. Forget aspiring to add some of Rory McIlroy’s power to your game, or Nelly Korda’s silkiness or Jordan Spieth’s ability to save par from a paper bag. If you’re a recreational golfer who someday is fixing to hunker down in a little place in Hilton Head or Hobe Sound, your North Star shouldn’t be any of those players. It should be Bernhard Langer.
Did you see him at SentryWorld on Sunday? His average driving distance was a mere 244 yards — or nearly 20 yards behind the field average. That’s not only because he’s shorter than many of his peers but also because he willfully elected to make himself even shorter, by hitting 3-wood off tees in place of drivers. On some par-4s that strategy left him with another 3-wood into the green. “I’d rather do that than hit driver and wedge it out from the rough,” he reasoned. The result: Langer missed just two fairways and four greens in regulation as his bomb-and-gouge chasers needed maps and machetes to escape the gnarled rough.
With a five-shot cushion down the stretch, Langer admitted to losing focus, noting, “my age probably showed up towards the end.” Maybe so, but so too did his experience.
On the 72nd hole, his lead now three, he took a bunker and short-sided trouble out of play by aiming at the right side of the green. When his ball ran through the back of the green to a chipping area, he putted, intentionally leaving his ball well short of the hole. On the NBC broadcast, Gary Koch accurately called the putt “a layup.” Added Langer after his round: “I told my caddie, ‘I’m going to leave this short because I don’t want to go down the hill and bring double into play or more.’ So it was pretty much a bogey on purpose.”
There’s your newest golf metric: BOP.
This is how a 65-year-old beats competitors who hit 300-yard drives and still play on the PGA Tour: by maximizing his strengths, minimizing his mistakes and sticking to a game plan with religious devotion. In other words, by playing smart. Most golfers look at a course and see fairways and greens; Langer sees the squares of a chessboard, with every swing, chip and putt a tactical decision. And more often than not he’s one or two moves ahead of his opponents.
“No matter if I’m playing with him or if I play a practice round with him, there’s always something where I’m like, hmm, why didn’t I think of that?” said Alex Cejka, Langer’s countryman, after finishing seven back in a tie for ninth. “I guess that’s what makes him extra-special. Not special, but extra-special.”
Ask Steve Stricker, native son of Edgerton, Wis., who had the will of his home state behind him on Sunday afternoon only to discover Langer’s will was stronger still. Stricker posted a two-under 69 to finish two back in solo second and suffered the added sting of watching Langer slip on a cheesehead during the awards ceremony.
Asked about Langer’s excellence, Stricker said what much of the golf world was thinking: “It gives all of us hope.”