Essential Golf: A passion for the Game

Destined to Be Great: Interview with Bernhard Langer

When Bernhard Langer was a kid, he caddied at Augsburg Golf Club, pocketing a few Deutsche marks—probably less than a dollar in those days, he says—for every nine-hole loop.

He shared a 2-iron, 3-iron and 7-iron, as well as a putter with a bent shaft, with about a dozen other caddies. But those humble beginnings were enough to ignite a lifelong passion for the game.

Langer’s first purchase with the money he saved from that caddying gig was a three-speed bicycle to ease the 10-mile, round-trip trek to the course. His next splurge was a set of Kroydon golf clubs, and turns out, that was money even better spent.

Langer’s list of accolades is enormous.

His signature season came in 1985 when Langer won seven tournaments on five continents—including the first of his two Masters, as well as the Sea Pines Heritage Classic the following week. Small wonder that when the Official World Golf Ranking debuted the following year, Langer was the inaugural No. 1.

Langer has gone on to win more than 100 times around the globe and play in 10 Ryder Cups, captaining one. The 61-year-old is again the dominant player on PGA TOUR Champions after earning his fifth Charles Schwab Cup and fourth in the last five years.

The World Golf Hall of Famer, winner of the 2018 Payne Stewart Award, took time recently to reflect on a career that has spanned more than four decades.

Q: Congratulations on winning the Payne Stewart Award. I am sure that was particularly special.

LANGER: Well, it meant a great deal. It’s a very unique award in the game of golf. It’s about character and charitable giving and that kind of stuff and to be recognized to be that and to have that is great…I was, on top of that, a good friend of Payne Stewart for many years and miss him dearly and felt for his wife, Tracy and the kids.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory of him?

LANGER: Oh, there’s a bunch of them. One would be The Ryder Cup. I think it was in England at the Belfry. The American team lost and we were celebrating in our team room and after it was all over, about an hour into it, somebody knocks at the door and there’s Payne Stewart who says, ‘Can I come in and celebrate with you guys?’ We said sure come in. And so he had a good time just hanging out with us. Even though they’ lost he realized, it’s just a game. It’s a game between 24 friends. A competition, and that time they were the losers and we were the winners. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get along.

So that was pretty unique and then another one was at the Dutch Open. We were practicing late and we heard this music coming out of a big, tented village. There was a band playing. Payne wanted to go check it out. So we went over there, and he became the center of the party. Went up on stage, pulled out his harmonica and started playing on his harmonica with the group. And that was Payne. Just loving life.

Q: Were there any golfers you admired growing up?

LANGER: Of course, many of them. But maybe Gary Player would be my golfing idol. The reason is he is about my size and he comes from South Africa where golf is not that popular—same as Germany. You have to travel long ways to compete and he’s a Christian and he’s won anything and everything and he was a worldwide player. Played all over the world as have I, So there’s a lot of common things between us.

Q: And your faith plays a big part of your life.

LANGER: Faith plays a very big part, yeah. I became a Christian in ’85 through the Bible study on the PGA TOUR. My first Bible study was actually three days after I won my first Masters in Hilton Head Island down there where we played the tournament. I became a Christian fairly soon after that and that was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment in golf?

LANGER: Well, there’s some that mean more than others. Probably the two Masters and then also the Ryder Cup. The captaincy [in 2004] was pretty special because we won on American soil with the largest winning margin so far. But also some individual events. Winning over 110 tournaments worldwide is pretty unique. So there’s a lot of stuff, but those stand out right away.

Q: Are you at all surprised to still be playing professionally at age 61?

LANGER: I am to some extent. When I was younger I wouldn’t have dreamed of the career I have had. Obviously, I have put a lot of work into it and all that and lived a life to focus on getting better and on success but still I am very, very blessed to still be doing it at this level. There’s many hundreds and thousands of others who would like to be in my place.

Q: Why do you think you’ve been able to play at such a high level for so long?

LANGER: It’s many things. First of all, obviously, health is very important. Natural talent gift. The drive and willingness to practice and work on it. Then, you know, I have a great coach [Willy Hoffman] that’s helped me for 40 odd years now. I’ve had good caddies. I had good family support and many other things that need to be there.

Q: What do you do to get away from golf?

LANGER: I enjoy other sports. Snow skiing. We do a trip every winter. But I enjoy watching sports on TV, as well. I like working out. I enjoy going to church and Bible studies … things like that. Go for walks, bike rides, enjoy nature.

Q: What kind of sports do you watch besides golf?

LANGER: Just about everything, except baseball. That’s not my favorite.

Q: Do you ever think about life without golf?

LANGER: Without professional golf? Sooner or later I am going to have to face that but so far I haven’t spent a great deal on it because I don’t think it’s in the immediate future unless something happens drastically. But I’ll be okay with it, I think, when it happens. I might miss some of the stuff that’s happening out here and some of the people. But you find other priorities when that time comes.

Q: How long do you think you’ll continue to play?

LANGER: I don’t know. I always said three things have to be in place. I need to be healthy enough to do it. I need to have some fun doing it—otherwise I wouldn’t put the work in. And I need to be successful at it. If I’m not in contention for a long stretch of time I don’t think I would have as much fun. I don’t want to finish 50th every year, every week.  Then I would certainly consider hanging it up.

Q: What do you see your life as being like in retirement?

LANGER: Well, I don’t know because we’’e just become empty nesters. So now my wife can come out more than ever so hopefully we will enjoy a few more years of traveling. And then one day I hope to have some grandkids. We have four kids. Two of them are married already so when that comes around then we’ll see how much our kids want us to be around the grandkids and then if they do then that becomes the priority maybe instead of golf. And you’ll see me less and less out here and more and more with the grandkids and with my wife.

Q: What still drives you?

LANGER: I think it’s my competitiveness. It’s the adrenalin rush that you get and just pushing yourself to see just how good you can be. People say out here once you’re 55 you’re not going to win anymore. Statistics prove there are exceptions, and I’d like to prove those statistics wrong.

This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR December 2018-May 2019 issue, which can be read here.

See also: Mickelson Handed U.S. Open Lifeline by USGA