A number of visions of Bernhard Langer stand out after his more than four decades as a professional golfer: hitting a ball from—not around or over or under—a tree at the 1981 Benson and Hedges International; winning the 1985 Masters, resembling, in his all-red ensemble, someone who had time much time and too much Rit within reach on the eve of the final round; losing the 1991 Ryder Cup with a missed putt and resulting grimace that seemed appropriate for an actual war, not a faux one on a resort golf course; the cool, calm and collected man out-captaining American Hal Sutton in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills during yet another European victory.
Those images aren’t going anywhere, but they now must be augmented with something from Langer on the tawny turf of Royal Porthcawl in Wales over the weekend. At the Senior British Open—one of three, in my mind, true majors in senior golf—Langer played one of the best tournaments by anyone on any tour. Ever.
Langer finished at 18-under 266, 13 strokes ahead of Colin Montgomerie, in a performance that had echoes of Bob Beamon, Secretariat and Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Montgomerie had to sweat out a playoff victory over Gene Sauers in the U.S. Senior Open, but the other 2014 men’s Opens were clear-cut decisions: Martin Kaymer by eight at Pinehurst No. 2 and Rory McIlroy wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool. In a summer of big statements, Langer was Reggie Jackson hitting a home run out of Tiger Stadium at the 1971 All-Star Game.
Woods’ majestic 2000 U.S. Open and Louise Suggs’ 14-shot victory at the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open are the only majors won by larger margins. And a ginger beer to Old Tom Morris, who won the 1862 British Open by 13 strokes over just 36 holes. In senior golf, though, Langer now stands at the top of Mount Blowout, eclipsing Hale Irwin’s 12-stroke win at the 1997 Senior PGA Championship, one of Irwin’s 16 victories in a two-year span.
Irwin still has more than twice as many Champions Tour career victories as Langer—45 to 22—but with his fourth win of the season Langer has climbed to T-6 on the all-time list with Don January and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Irwin’s total appears safe, but the 56-year-old Langer could possibly threaten the No. 2 senior, Lee Trevino, who won 29 times. A relevant endorsement of Langer’s Champions Tour career is that he now has far more wins (including four senior majors, to go with his two Masters titles) than anyone in his immediate age group. Of golfers born after 1950, Jay Haas, 60, is a distant second with 16 career victories.
Skeptics of senior golf, and there are many, might not acknowledge the high quality of the golf even in the wake of such a dominating effort as Langer’s. They will use the picture at the finish line as evidence of a shallow talent pool and an argument against the Champions Tour as full-fledged competition. Langer’s overwhelming victory, however, can just as easily be viewed a different way. Montgomerie was coming off wins in the Senior PGA and U.S. Senior Open and playing some of the best golf of his life—he wasn’t easing up for his old European Tour mate and longtime Ryder Cup teammate—and it was no contest.
Langer, who was T-8 at the 2014 Masters, dresses like someone half his age and has the physique to do so. He is so fit for a fiftysometing that when he uses that anchored long putter, it seems almost as out of place tucked up against his chest as Adam Scott’s does on him. Not long after the anchoring ban was announced, I was at a Champions Tour event and saw Langer practicing Matt Kuchar-style, club up his left forearm. I asked him not long ago if he had been continuing to work on methods that will be legal come January 2016 and he said, in essence, he is going to anchor his putter as long as he can and deal with what happens next when he must. That makes sense: Langer loves to compete, and anchoring the putter is helping him compete. Regardless of what purists think of the style, while it remains legal why dilute your golf being before you have to? The way Harry Vardon and Sam Snead each found a way to play on after getting the yips, so has Langer in his time. The broomstick might not be fashionable, but it is most functional. Putting isn’t close to the whole story for Langer’s second-act virtuosity, however. The only statistical category in which he is remotely approaches average this year is sand saves, where he is ranked 58th.
There was chatter after Langer won so convincingly at Royal Porthcawl that captain Paul McGinley should consider him for the European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles. Similar talk occurred after Montgomerie completed his senior-major double a couple of weeks ago in Oklahoma. I don’t see McGinley going the Langer route—perhaps unless he goes undefeated between now and when he makes his picks—but the fact that there is even a starter conversation a full decade since Langer himself was captain is a testament to the German native’s golf in 2014.
Some feel like once someone has a bronze in the Hall of Fame, his career is in epilogue gear thereafter. I haven’t ever subscribed to that theory but particularly since 2001, when I saw how disappointed Jack Nicklaus was after he let the U.S. Senior Open slip away late in the final round when he was 61. In the rare sport where longevity much more legitimate than hit-and-giggle is even possible, it makes little sense to discount post-prime but still wonderful play.
Whatever a golfer’s age, there is pleasure in watching him create a great distance between himself and his pursuers, as if he were in a cigarette boat and the rest were in Sunfishes, because it doesn’t happen often. Langer sure isn’t a fast golfer, but it was as if he was in a very fast craft at Royal Porthcawl.
Langer isn’t much of a drinker—I’ve heard him say he enjoys an occasional shandy. I sure hope he had a couple last night.