Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2010

The Master Of The Mental Game

While Stuart Appleby, D.A. Points, and J.B. Holmes were either flirting with or shooting 59 last weekend in West Virginia, over on the West Coast one of the greatest and most under-appreciated golfers of his generation was making history on the senior, or Champions Tour. On Sunday 52-year old German Bernhard Langer won the Senior U.S. Open, exactly one week after winning the Senior British Open at Carnoustie on the northeast coast of Scotland, eight time zones away from Sahalee Country Club in the suburbs of Seattle. Winning back to back is no easy feat; doing so while traveling a third of the way around the globe in between the two tournaments makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

For most American golf fans Bernhard Langer burst onto the scene when he came from behind on the final day to win the 1985 Masters Tournament. Starting the day tied with Seve Ballesteros for third place, two strokes behind Raymond Floyd and one behind Curtis Strange, Langer fired a final round 68 to beat all three of those golfers by two strokes. “Fired” is indeed the word for that day, as Langer arrived at the first tee dressed in a bright red outfit that caused all who saw it to wonder if he was planning on playing golf or trying out for Ladder Company Number 1.

But while the young German may have been largely unknown to American fans, he had already won 11 times on the European Tour and represented Europe on two Ryder Cup teams prior to claiming the 1985 green jacket. Because he was neither as flashy as Ballesteros nor as technically proficient as England’s Nick Faldo, Langer often toiled in the shadows of more famous European ball-strikers. But whatever he may have lacked in style or raw ability, Bernhard Langer has never been found wanting for sheer determination and mental toughness.

That mindset helped him win 40 times on the European Tour (the second most ever), 3 times on the PGA Tour including a second Masters triumph in 1993 (dressed decidedly more conservatively), and 26 times at other stops around the globe, all before turning 50 and qualifying for the senior circuit. He also played on ten Ryder Cup teams, just one short of Nick Faldo’s record eleven appearances. As a Ryder Cup participant, he won 11 ½ points in foursome play, the most in Cup history. In 2004, as the non-playing captain, he led the European squad that handed the American team its worst-ever defeat on U.S. soil, an 18 ½ to 9 ½ drubbing at Oakland Hills Country Club.

Since joining the Champions Tour two years ago, Langer has continued to thrive. The back-to-back major victories in the past two weeks were his 11th and 12th senior wins. At Carnoustie, Langer began Sunday three strokes clear of Corey Pavin, and held on to win by one. At Sahalee, he started the final round tied with Seattle native Fred Couples, five shots ahead of the rest of the field. Couples birdied the first to briefly claim the lead. But on the par-5 second hole, an errant drive by the hometown favorite forced him into laying up. Then, inexplicably, Freddie chunked his simple wedge approach shot into a pond fronting the green. By the time the bleeding was stanched, Langer had birdied the hole while Couples had recorded a triple-bogey 8. With the German on track to be the only golfer in the field to shoot four rounds in the 60’s, the tournament was over.

What makes this history of great achievement all the more remarkable, and illuminates Langer’s toughness and resiliency, is the reality of his greatest weakness. For Bernhard Langer is the most famous professional of the past quarter century to suffer horribly from a golfer’s most dreaded affliction, the yips.

The cause of the yips is much debated but unknown; mental, physical, who knows? Whatever the cause, the yips are quite simply the inability to smoothly swing the putter back and through the ball. The twitching, jerking putting stroke that a golfer afflicted with the yips displays can be an ugly thing to watch. The results are even more so.

They are definitely not results that would allow anyone to win 81 professional tournaments. But in fact Langer’s first onset of the putting yips came early, well before his first Masters win. Twice more in his career his ability to make a smooth putting stroke has entirely left him. Each time he has battled back, changing putting grips or changing putters on several occasions. For most of the past decade he has favored one of the long models.

Through sheer force of will he forged a career that won him election to the Golf Hall of Fame in 2001. While no doubt proud of that, he didn’t take it as a sign to slow down. Langer finished 5th at the Open Championship at the age of 47, and was ranked inside the top 100 players in the world at age 49. And his results since joining the Champions Tour speak for themselves, now highlighted by two Senior majors to go with his two green jackets from the regular Tour.

Despite all of his success, the lasting image of Langer’s career for many fans is a moment of failure and despair. The 1991 Ryder Cup was known as “The War On The Shore.” Played during the final weekend of September at the then relatively new Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, the intense matches came down to the final singles competition on Sunday, Langer versus American Hale Irwin. That final contest went all the way to the 18th green, where Langer faced a curling six foot putt to defeat Irwin and claim the winning point for Europe. Since all of the other matches had been decided, the green was ringed not just with spectators, but with all of the players from the two teams. The ball burned the edge of the hole, giving the Ryder Cup to the U.S. after three successive European victories. To this day I can still recall the still photograph taken at that moment, the ball clearly visible next to the hole, Langer’s face contorted in anguish.

It was the immortal Bobby Jones who said “competitive golf is a game played mainly on a five and one-half inch course…the space between your ears.” A moment like that one on Kiawah Island could haunt a player for a very long time, especially a player known to have issues with the flat stick. It is perhaps the truest measure of Langer’s determination and mental toughness that in the wake of that moment, exactly one week later he was back on the European Tour and hoisting the winner’s trophy at the Mercedes German Masters tournament, having shot thirteen under par and emerged the victor in a playoff.

Sometime these past two Sundays, there may have come a moment when both Corey Pavin and Fred Couples recalled that bit of history. If they did that was surely the moment when they knew they didn’t stand a chance.

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