Monday 22 January 2018

Langer drops anchor to navigate the stormy waters of change once more

Bernhard Langer won the Chubb Classic last weekend Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Bernhard Langer won the Chubb Classic last weekend Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

It's a little over seven weeks since the ban on anchored putters came into force on January 1. And while there may have been some lively speculation as to the first potential casualty to actually triumph over the change, the knowing ones were never in doubt.

In only his third tournament holding a long putter away from his body, Bernhard Langer captured the Chubb Classic on the US Champions Tour in Florida last weekend. With legendary resolve, the man once known affectionately as Fritzie won his battle with the blade. And not for the first time.

Each of the last four decades has had its own special Langer story, generally about his putting. These had to do essentially with the extraordinary mental strength of a man who simply refused to be broken by the dreaded twitch to which even the great Ben Hogan was forced to succumb.

He is remembered fondly here as a three-time winner of the Irish Open who also captured the inaugural Smurfit European Open at The K Club in 1995. And as the player who most influenced Pádraig Harrington on his determined climb to Major status.

"I didn't know Pádraig modelled himself on me," the German acknowledged in 2005, "but I can see certain things in him that would be associated with me, like work ethic and discipline and things like that."

Peter Dobereiner, the celebrated British golf writer, delighted in this tale about Langer's early days on the European Tour. It concerned a tournament held to mark the opening of the Aga Khan's luxury resort in Sardinia. And because the area was a notorious hotbed of the Mafia, all those involved with the event were advised to stay well clear of local taverns and, especially, local maidens.

When the time came, however, to depart for Cagliari airport at the end of the tournament, two hell-raising South African players were missing. Eventually, the last bus could wait no longer and headed off through fearsome kidnapping country where, as Dobereiner put it, "a bandito could crouch in his maquis and be invisible to pursuers a yard away on the roadside."

The veteran scribe took up the story: "After about an hour's driving, two bedraggled figures hailed the bus. Barefoot, their clothes torn and drenched in blood, they barely resembled the two missing pros. They were almost incoherent through drink, but before collapsing into insensibility on the back seat, were able to convey the urgent message that we should drive like hell.

"There now arose the question of the safety of the bus and the possibility of having to repel boarders. There was only one sensible precaution that could be taken and the mood of the passengers was unanimous: 'Fritzie! Go and sit by the door.'" Dobereiner concluded that when Langer duly took up his position, "nobody was going to get past him."

The most remarkable thing about Langer's putting was that he seemed to get little or no warning as to when the crippling yips would return. For instance, I remember watching putting master-classes from him during the 1987 season, when he beat Christy O'Connor's 28-year-old aggregate record for Wentworth and then won the Irish Open by 10 strokes at Portmarnock six weeks later.

Wentworth's runner-up Seve Ballesteros declared: "Nobody in the world could have beaten him." And in what Langer described as "probably the best performance of my life", rounds of 67, 68, 66, 68 for a record 269 at Portmarnock left Sandy Lyle a distant second.

Yet only a year later, playing partner Eamonn Darcy was moved to remark: "It was pathetic to watch him." With opening rounds of 72, 77, the German endured serious grief on Portmarnock's greens, having suffered the indignity the previous month of five-putting one green at Royal Lytham en route to a final round of 80 in the Open Championship.

Yet astonishingly, the following April he was Spanish Open champion at El Saler, where a third-round 67 contained 27 putts and there were birdies at the 70th and 71st holes in a closing 72. He had conquered the yips for the second time in his career.

Six years later they were back again, this time despite the apparently foolproof method of clasping the putter-grip to his left forearm (originated by Scotland's Ian Marchbank). The malady resurfaced during the Volvo Masters at Valderrama in October 1995 and again during the Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City.

Early in 1996, his faithful caddie Pete Coleman was convinced there could be only one solution: "Though he has tried the long putter in practice and can't get on with it, I think he simply has to give it a serious go." Langer listened and by year's end felt confident enough to declare: "It's nice to know I can succeed with the long putter."

It is almost 50 years since Peter Alliss joined those who felt obliged to quit tournament golf through wretched putting. Nowadays, players feel compelled to search for a solution, which Langer has done repeatedly, with remarkable success.

Over the last several weeks, much attention has focused on such players at Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and Webb Simpson and their attempts at coping with the rule change. Now, an old hand has shown them the way, though not before taking 15 putters to the practice green during the build-up to the Chubb Classic at TwinEagles GC.

"Whenever you make a drastic change or a change of some sort, you never know," said Langer. "I'm 58 now, so if you look at the statistics, a lot of guys don't win when they're near 60. But I still think I have some good golf left in me. The way I putted this week was probably better than I putted many weeks last year when I was anchored. That gives me hope that I can probably pursue with this style and still do very, very well."

His 29th American victory, including two Masters titles, didn't look a particularly healthy prospect back in September 1980 when he sought comfort in the £5 purchase of a ladies' Bullseye putter with a thickened grip. Though it proved to be only a temporary solution, Langer always seemed content simply to continue playing.

Which has characterised a truly wonderful career.

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