Golf is a sport of the unexpected. Take Bernhard Langer and The Open: six times the German legend finished in the top-three yet never lifted the Claret Jug. Three of those near misses were at Royal St. George’s, where the championship returns this week. Here, he talks to Robin Barwick about the Claret Jug he never won
Bernhard Langer did not win The Open at Royal St. George’s but he really could have done; perhaps he really should have done.
In 1981 Langer played in The Open for the fourth time, and aged 23, he finished second behind American Bill Rogers at Sandwich. The Open returned to the Kent coast just four years later and this time the German star – who was reigning Masters champion this time – held a share of the third-round lead yet finished third behind Sandy Lyle.
Then in 1993 Langer was in contention yet again at Royal St. George’s. This time he shot a final round of 67, five under par, which would often have been good enough to win, but his playing partner that day, Greg Norman, shot a peerless 64 to take the Claret Jug.
“My memories from Royal St. George’s are bitter-sweet,” reflects Langer, now 63 and an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz. “Obviously I have done well there, but just not well enough. I have never got that win.”
A golfer with a naturally low ball-flight, ideal for the windy conditions of links golf, Langer is a great iron player. He can fade the ball, draw the ball, control the spin, and these traits build towards success on links. He is an accurate driver of the ball too – another critical factor – but often during his prime years, Langer’s putting would either run hot or cold.
“I struggled several times in my career with the yips,” he admits, “when I lost confidence in my putting and then you lose control over the putter. If I hadn’t suffered the yips during my career, I probably would have won several more majors, and maybe two or three Opens. I was an unusual professional in that I was sometimes one of the best putters and sometimes one of the worst, and many times I was in between.”
In 1981, Langer’s opportunity to win his first major probably arrived too soon. It was in the middle of a breakthrough season that saw Langer win the European Tour’s Order of Merit for the first time, yet The Open was Langer’s first time in contention in a major.
“By this point in my career I was yet to play in any American majors at all, so the only chance I had to play against a world-class field was in The Open,” says Langer, whose first tour win had come at the 1980 Dunlop Masters in Wales.
American Rogers carved a five-shot lead after three rounds, and while Langer got to within a shot of the lead early on the final day, Rogers slipped into overdrive on the back nine to ease away and win by four.
The Open in 1985 was there for the taking. Langer shared the third-round lead with David Graham but Langer’s putter ran cold in the fourth round.
“I missed a short putt on the 1st hole and that kind of shook me a little bit, disturbed my confidence level and then I did not putt well for the rest of the day,” admits Langer, who posted a 75 in the final round to match the disappointing finish of New South Wales’ Graham. “It is hard to score on a tough course if you don’t putt well. I hung in there and scraped it around, and then I had to make a birdie on the last hole to tie Sandy Lyle.”
Langer had to hole a chip on 18 to take Lyle to a play-off and he very nearly did it.
“The atmosphere was electric,” he says. “We were the last group so everyone gathered around the green and the huge grandstands were full. All eyes were on me because a birdie would have forced the playoff. I knew that I had to make that chip. I knew I had to give it a go. I hit a good chip and it came very close to going in the hole; it went over the edge of the cup. It came close but not close enough. To play in that atmosphere is what we practise and play for; those situations in an arena like that.
“Ultimately, that was one of the most disappointing days in my career. I know that if I had played a little better, I could have won.”
The Open of 1993 was a very different circumstance again.
Langer went into the final round tied with Norman in second place, one shot behind Nick Faldo and Corey Pavin. This time Langer played an excellent final round, shooting 67, but to no avail, as his playing partner Norman played one of the greatest final rounds in major championship history, shooting 64 to win by two, with Langer a shot behind Faldo in third.
“Norman played one of the best rounds of golf I have ever witnessed,” admits Langer, who has finished in The Open’s top-three on six occasions.
“I made one mistake when I hit my tee shot out of bounds on the par-5 14th. There was a left-to-right wind and the ball got away from me. If I had not done that it would have been very close, but I did and it was amazing to watch how well Greg played in the circumstances. He hit a lot of great shots and never put himself in a bad position. It was nearly a perfect round of golf and he deserved to win. Sometimes you play really good golf but someone else plays better; that’s golf.”
Langer is not complaining. He has won the Masters twice. Since turning 50 he has collected 11 senior major titles, including four victories in the Senior Open. He has won more than 100 tour titles and has a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
As the reigning Senior Open champion, Langer had a place in The Open field this week but he made the difficult decision to withdraw. Coming immediately after last week’s U.S Senior Open at Omaha CC in Nebraska, and just before the Senior Open at Sunningdale, Langer is prioritising the senior majors by taking the week off in between.
So, Langer won two Masters titles but never clinched The Open. Norman won The Open twice but never claimed the Masters. How about a friendly swap?
With a laugh, Langer concedes: “I am sure we would both make that trade with each other; a green jacket for a Claret Jug.”
Bernhard Langer is an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz, and Mercedes-Benz is a patron of The Open