Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros was golf's fiercest rivalry in the 1980s, but the German tells NCG it was all about proving Europeans could compete on the biggest stage
With all the talk of Jack and Arnie and Tiger and Phil, one historic rivalry that perhaps we don’t talk about enough is the six-year ding dong between Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros.
It may have been short lived – and the game’s first genuine heavyweight European rivalry – but in the mid-80s the pair finished first and second in the same event on more than a handful of occasions and were knocking on the door in almost every major they entered.
In the 40 majors played that decade, Langer and Ballesteros shared 16 top 10s and five wins between them. The zenith came in the space of a few months between the summer of 1984 and spring of 1985 when Langer finished 2nd to Ballesteros at the Open before the roles were reversed at the Masters – and a major breakthrough for the German in just his third Augusta start and 11th overall.
It is now over 35 years ago – but Langer remembers it well.
“It was not necessarily comfortable but we were used to each other,” he explains when asked if he enjoyed playing alongside Ballesteros on major Sunday. “We were two of the dominant players and we often got paired together on a weekend, competing for a title.
“Seve and I were paired together in the final round of the Open at St Andrews, in the second-to-last group, when Seve won with his famous fist pump. Nine months later there we were again, paired together in the second-to-last group on the Sunday of a major, with Ray Floyd and Curtis Strange behind us.
“Seve and I were opposites in many ways – he showed a lot of emotion whereas I kept my emotions inside – but the results were extremely good for both of us.”
On a 54-hole leaderboard otherwise dominated by Americans, Langer and Ballestros trailed Floyd by two and Strange by a stroke.
Having opened with an 80, Strange would play his next 48 holes in a remarkable 15 under par. That meant, with six holes to play, he held a three-stroke lead.
Unfortunately for the future two-time US Open champion, he found water at both the par 5s, the 13th and the 15th, to card bogeys at both as well as the 18th.
By contrast, Langer birdied both the three-shotters, and added another on the 17th, meaning he had the luxury of finishing with a five and still finishing two clear of Strange, Floyd, and Seve.
“In that final round I didn’t really focus on Seve. I learned to play my own game and make the best of it,” he concludes.
What’s interesting, though, is that while they were competing against each other, Langer says he and Ballesteros always felt a sense of ‘us vs them’ when it came to taking on the Americans. Indeed, the pair would play together in seven Ryder Cups, winning three and tying one, while Ballesteros captained a winning team led by Langer in 1997.
But were they conscious they were representing Europe on the grandest of stages at Augusta?
“Absolutely,” Langer replies. “Seve and I wished each other good luck on the first tee, as we would always do, and we shared a comment about bringing the Green Jacket back to Europe.
“With [Ray] Floyd and [Curtis] Strange behind us we were two Europeans and two Americans. We had all played in a few Ryder Cups and there was always this rivalry between Europe and the United States and the whole world thought the Americans were better.
“We wanted to prove that the Europeans were just as good.”
Three years before Langer had become the first German to play the Masters. He explains how he felt like an outsider while being thrilled to break new ground.
“It was all of that. It was very exciting to have made it there because in those days the only way a European golfer could guarantee their invite was to win the Masters or the European Order of Merit in the previous year. That’s how I got into it.
“It was great to finally play at Augusta and to compete against all those huge names we constantly heard about: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, all these names we looked up to.
“There were times when Europeans were too much in awe of them. Once I played against them more often I realised I could be as good as any of them on any given week.”
“I liked Augusta right away. The main reason is that the fairways were wide and there was no rough – just pine needles – and that was better for me because I was not always the straightest driver. There was a premium on irons accuracy. That is why I did not like playing in the US Open so much, but I was fairly good with imagination around the greens and I was a good irons player.
“I learned my lesson in 1982, when I three-putted 11 times in 36 holes to miss the cut by one. I was enjoying a great year in 1985 and I felt like I belonged, like I was one of the best players in the world, and that I should have a chance of winning the Masters.
“I spent a lot of time studying the course and in 1985 I think I only three-putted once over 72 holes.”
Langer added a second Masters title in 1993, but fast forward almost four decades and he is about to make his 37th bid for the Green Jacket at the age of 63 – the oldest in the field.
“I did not know that,” he says. “It’s a two-sided coin. On one side I can’t believe I am now the oldest player but on the other side I am very grateful that I am still competing at this age, which not many people can do.
“I was sitting next to Larry Mize a couple of years ago at the Champions Dinner. We were saying that 20 or 30 years ago we were two of the youngest guys at the dinner, looking up to the older guys, and that it won’t be long before we are the old guys, with the young guys maybe looking up to us.
“Maybe we have arrived at that point already.”
Bernhard Langer at the Masters
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Bernhard Langer was talking to NCG as an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz, a global partner of the Masters. Visit the Mercedes-Benz website for more.