Thirty years ago, Bernhard Langer helped slip the Green Jacket on to Jack Nicklaus’s back. Langer was 28 at the time and had won his first Masters, and his first major, the previous year. Nicklaus was 46.
Which made him, and still makes him, the oldest man ever to win at Augusta National, and the second-oldest to win any major, after Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968.
Because it’s the 30th anniversary, the story of Nicklaus’s famous win has been told all over again many times already this week. Seems golf fans never get tired of hearing about it. Serendipitous then, that all these years later Langer has been riding so high up the leaderboard again. He’s 58 now. On Saturday he made 70, with six birdies, which left him two strokes off the lead.
Langer isn’t the only old hand who has made a run at the Masters in recent years. There’s something about the tournament that suits the older players. In 2010 Fred Couples finished sixth, aged 50, and then finished in the top 20 in every one of the four following years. He shared the 36-hole lead in 2012, and was one shot off the lead going into the weekend in 2013. Couples missed this year’s tournament because he has a bad back. Miguel Ángel Jiménez, 52, is another. In 2014, he finished fourth, his best-ever result here. Langer tied for eighth place that same year. This year Davis Love III, 51, and Larry Mize, 57, both made the cut too. Love, Mize, Langer and Couples are all major winners.
“I’ve always said that a man at 50 would win the Masters, and I was ridiculed,” Gary Player said last week. “Listening to commentators, all they talk about is long distance off the tee.” Player said he had “never heard such crap in my life”. Because “long distance is not what wins golf tournaments. It’s from 100 yards in. Because 70% of golf is played from 100 yards in.” Mize’s average drive, 240 yards, ranks flat last in the field. Langer’s 261 average puts him 53rd out of the 57 who made the cut. But Langer is in the top 10 for making greens in regulation, and both he and Mize, winner here in 1987, feature high on the list of best performers around the greens, where they’re both averaging around 1.6 putts per hole, while, for example, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson have been averaging 1.8.
Langer says, only half joking, that he’s really playing a different sort of game to some of the younger guys. “I’m probably 40, 50 yards behind some of these big hitters, maybe sometimes only 30, but that’s a lot to give up,” he says. “But there’s still other ways of doing it. If you hit it exactly where you want to hit it, you can still shoot under par, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.” There are, he added with a smile, “different ways of getting there”. The main advantage he has, he says, is knowledge, of his own game and the course. “We’re not playing tennis or soccer or football where it all comes down to speed and strength. Golf is a lot more about knowing yourself and technique. Just thinking your way around the golf course and then execution.”
Because the Masters is always played on the same course, Langer and the others have an enormous wealth of understanding about how best to get around it in all sorts of conditions. “I was told today was my 113th competitive round on this golf course,” Langer says, “plus probably, I don’t know, 80 or 90 practice rounds, so I must be getting close to 200 rounds out here. So I know the place well.”
On Friday and Saturday, when the high winds and tricky pins meant that Augusta National was at something close to its most impossibly difficult, he used that expertise to navigate his way around the course. “I just try to stay away from missing the ball in the wrong places where you don’t have a shot,” Langer explains. But you have to be able “to hit the ball where you want to be able to hit it”.
Fitness plays a part too. “The guys are staying fit,” says Langer. “They are taking care of themselves. We see it amongst the young guys, but as they get older they are going to be in better shape.” So does the competitiveness of the Champions Tour, where Langer has won three tournaments and had 18 top-10 finishes in the past two years. He agrees with Player. “Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. One of the over-50s is going to win a major. We have guys right now, Davis Love, Vijay Singh, Fred Couples, these guys are still long enough to compete on any golf course.”
Nicklaus’s victory in ’86 “changed the whole concept”, said Player; it ended the “tendency of thinking that you are old playing golf at 40”. Three decades later, Langer, Couples, and the rest are doing a similar thing for the fiftysomethings.
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