Langer the mystified master of Sandwich

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The Independent Online

Every time Bernhard Langer has played at Royal St George's he has been at or near the top of the leaderboard. As he never visits the Kent coast other than to play in The Open Championship, it means his experience of Sandwich amounts to a triple-decker.

The first time he set foot on the place was as a 23-year-old beginning to make his mark on the European Tour. In 1981 Bill Rogers, from Waco, Texas, could not put a foot wrong, and that included winning The Open at St George's. Second, four strokes away, was Langer, who won £17,500, at the time the biggest cheque of his career, and he went on to finish top of the European money list. The previous year he had announced his arrival while becoming the first Bayern Munich supporter to win the Dunlop Masters.

Nobody expected him to feature at historic Sandwich. "It was the first Major in which I'd been in contention,'' Langer said. "In the last round I still had a reasonable chance, but I probably wasn't quite ready. I'd never been through that before, so it was an unusual experience. Maybe I didn't believe that I could cope with it. Bill Rogers was the best at the time. He was an accurate striker and a brilliant putter.''

Rogers' Open was the first at Sandwich for 32 years, the introduction of a bypass easing traffic congestion in the small town. Rogers won seven times around the world that year and became one of golf's first victims of burn-out. When The Open returned to St George's in 1985 Rogers was there, but not as a serious player. "I really don't know why I'm here,'' he said. "A golf championship is a really low priority. Number one is myself and family and home.'' He became a club pro, and has recently been competing on the seniors circuit.

In 1985 Langer won six tournaments, including the Masters at Augusta, but he wouldn't know what burn-out was. He returned to Sandwich that summer as a Major champion, a man who could win on both sides of the Atlantic. At Augusta three months earlier he'd had a stroke of luck when he mis-hit his approach shot at the par-five 13th and the ball bounced over the water and on to the green, enabling him to produce an eagle three.

"I've had very little luck in The Open. Perhaps I want it too much, so that I try that little bit too hard and my concentration starts to falter because of the extra pressure I put on myself,'' he said.

Eighteen years ago, Langer did not have the luck of the draw. "I had a late tee-time for the first round and the weather was bad on Thursday afternoon. I had an early start on Friday morning and the weather was again awful. From my half of the draw only 15 players made the cut, and I was the only guy near the leaderboard. We had two days of horrendous weather while the other half of the draw enjoyed good conditions.''

Sandy Lyle, on the other hand, went out early on Thursday, late on Friday, and in between the weather vane went crazy. Beforehand, Lyle felt that if he was to win an Open, St George's would be the venue, because it suits a long hitter. However, in the third round following a 73, he found himself three shots behind Langer and David Graham. By the time Lyle birdied the 15th in the final round he had regained the lead, but the 18th extended the drama.

Lyle's second shot rolled left into Duncan's Hollow, and his too-delicate chip came back to him. He then putted to two feet for a five and waited for Langer and Graham. Both needed a birdie to tie: a cheer went up when Graham found a bunker. There was a similar reaction when Langer's ball went right and bounced through the green into the rough.

"I'd begun the round full of optimism,'' Langer recalled. "I thought this was my time, but I missed a short putt on the first and that affected my confidence.'' That day Langer wore a sweater provided by a new sponsor, and on the back in large letters was one word: "Boss". Neither the R & A nor the BBC were amused, and Langer was told that if it happened again he would not appear on television.

Of his pitch out of the long grass at the 18th to force a play-off, Langer said: "It was one of the best shots I've ever played. It was all about making that one shot to achieve a lifetime's ambition, and I thought I'd created a piece of magic. The ball seemed destined for the hole and I could feel the excitement. Instead, it grazed the flag and rolled past. I felt terribly deflated, because I knew I'd thrown away my chance. I didn't play well enough.''

Rogers' aggregate was 276, Lyle's 282. Eight years later, the St George's dragon was put to the sword by Greg Norman, who lowered the total to a record 267. In 1993, as in '85, Langer again went into The Open as Masters champion, and again he was on the leaderboard. In the final round he was paired with Norman. "I tried to hang in there but I couldn't catch him. Greg was almost flawless in everything he did. It was one of the best rounds I've ever seen.'' But for a missed tap-in at the 17th, Norman would have shot 63.

Ten years on, and Langer returns to the Open course where he has finished second, joint third and third, and this week will be only his fourth appearance at Royal St George's. Unlike some players, he has never visited the course outside of Open week, and he doesn't even have particularly fond memories. "I have no idea why I've done so well there. It's probably not the fairest of the Open courses.''

A decade ago, Langer said that winning The Open was only a matter of time. Aged 46 next month, he has probably missed the boat. His arch rival Seve Ballesteros has disappeared off the radar, and at some point the German has the Ryder Cup captaincy to look forward to. Yet Langer, who once climbed a tree to hit his ball and who went on to scale the peaks and defeat the dreaded yips which often reduced him to taking four putts to get down from six feet, remains a contender.