Bernhard Langer doesn’t regret much about his Hall of Fame career. But there is still one that hurts. He tells Alex Perry how he dealt with his Open heartache
Bernhard Langer was just a kid when he first rocked up at Royal St George’s in 1981 – a scrawny 23-year-old with bouncing blonde curls, a wispy moustache, and absolutely no idea of the memories – good and bad – he would make over the next four decades on the Kent coast.
Langer had already played in three Opens – though two missed cuts and a tie for 51st meant there was not much to write home about – and it was the European Tour where he was making waves, including his maiden victory at the British Masters.
But it was on the grandest of all stages where Langer preferred to measure his ability. And at the time there was really only one shot a year.
“It was very difficult for any European to get an invitation to the Masters, US Open, or PGA,” he explains. “So the only way for me to compare myself with the best in the world was at the Open Championship.”
Buoyed by recent form, Langer found himself tied for second going into the last day of the ’81 Open, but it was going to take something special to overhaul the five-shot lead Bill Rogers had built himself. As it was, barely anyone broke 70 on the final day and the American won by four.
“I was playing good golf and was in contention,” Langer reflects. “But I don’t think I was ready to win a major.”
“I had a very good year, I had confidence, and obviously I’m playing against the best in the world.
“I had to go through the learning stages and, even though I’m a fairly fast learner, it still took a little time.”
For all the talk of Jack vs Arnie and Tiger vs Phil down the years, not much is said for Langer’s ding-dong with Seve Ballesteros in what is generally considered the first heavyweight rivalry between two Europeans.
The pair famously finished one-two at the 1984 Open, with Ballesteros getting his hands on his second Claret Jug, before swapping places the following April in Augusta, where Langer slipped into the first of two Green Jackets.
“I’m sure it was fascinating for the spectators,” Langer jokes. “We were polar opposites. Seve was very outgoing and wore his emotions on his sleeve, and I was more like a stoic ice man. I was Bjorn Borg and he was John McEnroe!
“We were paired together at St Andrews in ‘84 and then the Masters in ‘85 – and once I was to congratulate him and the other time he was to congratulate me. But Seve was the best match player ever. He was very driven and just wanted to win, and that’s what you need if you want to be one of the best.
“Should I have beaten him at St Andrews? I outplayed Seve from tee to green but he just out-putted me by three or four shots. And putting is almost half of the game. He was certainly better at putting and chipping than I was that day – and that’s why he won.
“I felt like I gave myself ample opportunities. I just couldn’t make the putts.”
But we’re here to talk about Royal St George’s and that’s where Langer found himself a year later – only this time with the experience of getting over the line in a major.
After opening rounds of 72, 69 and 68, Langer was tied for the lead with David Graham – the only two players under par and three clear of the chasing pack. Both shot 75 on Sunday to let Sandy Lyle pip them to victory.
“That was the easiest one for me to win,” Langer recalls. “I was in a good position, I was playing well, and I liked the golf course, then I missed a four-foot putt on the first green that shook me up. My putting woes came back and I lost confidence. I didn’t putt well that day and it’s hard to score on any tough course if you don’t putt well.
“That one got away and I could have had it if I played a little better. That was one of the most disappointing days of golf for me.”
Langer tied for third again the following year, a distant six shots behind champion Greg Norman at Turnberry, but we fast forward to 1993 when Langer inexplicably contended at Royal St George’s for a third time.
The Australian again came out on top, but it was a lot closer on this occasion. Norman and Langer trailed Nick Faldo and Corey Pavin going into the final day, but Norman shot an absurd 64 to win by two. Langer, while disappointed, was happy to have front row seats to the links exhibition going on alongside him.
“It was one of the best rounds of golf I had seen under the circumstances,” he explains. “I played very well. I made one mistake when I hit it out of bounds on 14, but otherwise I shot 67, which is a good round under any circumstances.
“But he played a flawless round and he deserved to win. Sometimes you play really good golf but somebody plays better, and sometimes you don’t necessarily play your very best but everybody else doesn’t do well either and you win.
I have to ask: Would you trade one of your Masters titles for one of Norman’s Opens? And do you think he would do the same?
“I’m sure we both would make that trade,” Langer says with that familiar beaming smile across his face.
Langer missed the cut at Royal St George’s in both 2003 and 2011, but he will return for a sixth time this year by virtue of his fourth Senior Open Championship victory in 2019.
The 12-month postponement adds a nice touch of serendipity to the week for Langer, 40 years on from his first visit to Sandwich.
To put it into context, Langer arrived at the 1981 Open with one European Tour win on his resume. He’ll tee up this year as one of the most decorated players in the field, with 117 professional wins, including two Green Jackets and 11 senior majors, as well as several Ryder Cup wins as both a player and captain, and a spot in golf’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s mind boggling,” Langer says. “Where I came from, a little village in Bavaria, golf was nothing. It was not popular in Germany at the time. When I said I was playing golf, people thought it was mini golf and my friends would say, ‘Why don’t you play soccer with us?’
“I truly have to pinch myself to realise how good the game has been for me. And it’s taken me all over the globe. I’ve been to many, many places and met with a lot of wonderful people and seen a lot of cultures.
“I have been tremendously blessed by winning so many tournaments. And while the Open Championship has gotten away, I can’t complain at all.”
But Langer’s still in good form and in the best shape of his life. With the unpredictability of the Open and its ability to throw up a surprise winner every now and then – not to mention Phil Mickelson’s recent PGA Championship win at the age of 50 – surely there’s a little part of Langer that thinks he can do it.
“I’ve been saying for years now that I’m convinced a senior will win a major,” he explains. “We all saw what Tom Watson almost did at Turnberry when he was 59 – almost 60 years old! – and he was very unfortunate not to win that tournament.
“I see how good these guys are on the Champions Tour and it’s going to happen again down the road.”
I’ll take that as a yes, Bernhard.
Bernhard Langer at Royal St George’s
1981: 2nd (aged 23)
1985: Tied-3rd (aged 27)
1993: Tied-3rd (aged 35)
2003: Missed cut (aged 45)
2011: Missed cut (aged 53)
2021: TBC (aged 63)
Redemption at the Senior Open
Langer will head straight from Royal St George’s to Sunningdale in a bid to win his third Senior Open in four attempts, and his fifth overall.
I already know the answer to my next question, but I have to ask.
“It doesn’t make up for it, no, but it’s the next best thing,” Langer explains. “It was disappointing for me not to win an Open in my career so far, but the Senior Open is very similar in that you play the same golf courses and you play against the best in your age category – the same guys I played all my life really.
“To come out on top is still very gratifying and very satisfactory. That fire will never leave you. That’s what makes us competitive. When we tee it up we want to win, we want to be in the hunt, we want to be in the last pairing and have a chance to lift the trophy and measure ourselves against the best there is.”
Want more from Bernhard Langer?
Langer was speaking on The Slam podcast from NCG. Listen in the player below or on your preferred podcast platform.
- Bernhard Langer was talking to NCG as an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz
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