Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2015

A Fine Sunday Walk With Bernie

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post was delayed by one day.

Hidden deep within the residential side streets of the tony Boston suburb from which it derives its name, Belmont Country Club sprawls over nearly 250 hilly acres. The original 18 hole design was laid out by Donald Ross, the renowned Scotsman whose most famous works include Pinehurst #2, Aronimink, East Lake and Inverness. Ross designed hundreds of courses up and down the east coast, and like many of them Belmont has been remodeled numerous times over the ensuing decades. Yet signs of the master remain, in the form of naturally scalloped bunkers and turtleback greens. There is certainly still enough Ross to justify the stylized turtle that is the club’s logo.

Belmont is also a course that is as arduous as it is historic. Eight holes, starting with the opener and continuing right through the finishing par-4, have dramatic elevation changes; and another five are distinctly if less steeply sloped. That makes just walking the course a challenge of its own, which added to the difficulty for the 81 members of the 50-and-over Champions Tour who were present last week for the Constellation Senior Players Championship.

Four rounds over hilly terrain proved troublesome for more than a few of the contestants, who in some cases are living proof that the ability to strike a golf ball successfully is not dependent on a sculpted physique. Guy Boros began the final round tied for third place. But Boros, whose father Julius won three majors including the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48, would be politely described as a large man. On a warm Sunday afternoon he was clearly laboring in his fourth time up and down Belmont’s Hills. By day’s end Boros had tumbled down the leader board with a final round 79.

Others handled the topography only to be daunted by the golfing challenges of the layout. In the end fewer than half the field broke par for the 72 holes, and through three rounds only a single golfer found his way to double digits under par. Many who thought they had Belmont figured out learned that what the course gave it could just as quickly take away. During Friday’s second round Brad Faxon, who grew up in Rhode Island and who was being cheered on as a local favorite, set a new course record with a 7-under round of 64. It was a record that lasted but a few hours, as before the day was out Steve Pate came home in 63. But Faxon’s glory was sandwiched by rounds of 74 and 77 before he closed with a 1-under par 70; and Pate’s course record was his only sub-par round of the tournament.

Then there was Colin Montgomerie, who leads the Champions Tour’s season-long Charles Schwab Cup points race. Monty was in joint third when he teed off in the penultimate grouping Sunday afternoon. When he rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 9th hole a couple of hours later he had played the front nine in 4-under and was alone in second place. He made the walk up a hill to the 10th tee smiling and chatting with fans. But twin back nine bogeys stopped Montgomerie’s charge, and after missing a short birdie try on the par-5 17th hole the always mercurial Scot was scowling and cursing as he strode to the final tee box. Still considering that he began Sunday by checking himself into a local hospital after experience chest pains, Montgomerie’s closing 68 and tie for third was a commendable performance.

Even if Montgomerie had maintained his front nine momentum it would likely not have changed the final result of this year’s Senior Players, for from start to finish this tournament belonged to Bernhard Langer. He seized the first round lead with a 6-under 65, then doubled his margin from two shots to four by recording the same score on Friday. A third round 67 left Langer at 16-under par, eight shots clear of his closest pursuer.

That left the rest of the field playing for second place on Sunday, barring a Langer collapse. Perhaps some slight possibility of the latter appeared on the 3rd hole, when he three-putted from 45 feet for a bogey. It was the first blemish on Langer’s scorecard since the 8th hole of his first round. But then he made the short walk to the tee of the downhill par-5 4th hole, and promptly launched a towering drive down the right side of the fairway. The ball bounded down the hill, finally coming to a stop within striking distance of the green. Langer’s next was a soaring hybrid that landed just short of the green and took one hop onto the putting surface, coming to a stop just 7 feet left of the cup. The ensuing eagle moved the leader back into red numbers for the day and effectively ended what little doubt remained about the tournament’s outcome. Pinpoint precision with iron approaches on both the 6th and 8th holes yielded an additional pair of birdies, and ensured that the final two and a half hours of Langer’s round were a pleasant Sunday stroll.

For the 57-year old German and two-time Masters champion, the six shot victory at 19-under par was his 24th Champions Tour title and 5th senior major. Only three players have more Champions Tour wins, and none got to 24 as quickly as Langer. He also joined Arnold Palmer as the only players to defend a Senior Players title, after winning last year in Philadelphia. The long-time European Tour stalwart and ten-time Ryder Cup team member is now just three shy of an even 100 professional victories. Nearly three decades after he became the first world number one when the Official World Golf Rankings were introduced in 1986, Langer continues to play with a level of consistency and precision that makes the Mercedes logo on his shirt seem like one of the more obvious sponsorship matches of all time.

Not bad for a golfer who probably shouldn’t be playing the game at all. For Langer, who turned pro at the age of 15, has battled the putting yips since he was a teenager. Scores of amateur golfers suffer from the unexplainable tendency to flinch or jerk with a putter in hand, but at a young age Langer confronted the very real possibility that the problem could rob him of his livelihood. Instead he persevered by resolute determination and an implacable will, all the while building a career that has earned him membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Over the decades Langer’s used a variety of putting grips and an assortment of putters. A broomstick model that he anchors against his sternum has brought him success for years. That grip will be banned in 2016, raising the question of whether his career might be nearing a sudden end. But it’s far more likely that the ever determined Langer will view the rules change as just one more challenge to overcome. As he strolled up and down Belmont County Club’s hills, headed to a dominant victory on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Bernhard Langer looked a very long way from being done.

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