Iron willpower and absolute mastery

Andy Farrell wonders why, despite his two titles, no one is tipping Bernhard Langer
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The thing about Bernhard Langer is that he is such a polite and decent chap that you do not want to offend him by bluntly suggesting that he is not in the same class as Ben Crenshaw when it comes to putting, or that he would need a Mercedes to drive as far as Tiger Woods. So you waffle on, going all the way round the houses and he finally smiles and says: "It's okay. I know what you are trying to say."

The question facing Langer is that he is not exactly an archetypal Masters champion. When everyone thinks of Augusta National, they think of long hitters and great putters. Yet Langer has qualified to wear the club's exclusive green jacket on two occasions, first overtaking a water-divining Curtis Strange in 1985 and then again by outlasting Chip Beck eight years later.

Each April, when the lists of favourites for the upcoming Masters are trotted out, Langer is perhaps the least talked about former two-time champion. It is not something the German is about to lose any sleep over. He can even understand the reasoning behind it. "I don't know if people forget about me. I haven't noticed," he said.

"I'm probably not mentioned as a favourite and I probably shouldn't be because I don't have the game that is right for the course. But when they mention favourites, they don't mention 20 people or 30. I might be one of those, but they only say four or five."

When six bigwigs at the leading American golf magazine, Golf Digest, sat down to make their draft selections from the Masters field, Langer was picked at No 48. Even Seve Ballesteros was selected at No 4 6, by someone with a greater grasp on ancient glories than contemporary form. (For the record, the top six, in order, were Ernie Els, Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Tom Lehman, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, only two of whom are past Masters winners.)

"I have been fortunate enough to win twice," Langer continues, "and it just proves there are other ways of doing it. The whole game is important. To generalise, Augusta suits someone who can hit the ball very long and high. If you hit it long, you have short irons into the greens, which makes it a lot easier. You have to hit it high to stop the ball. It also suits someone with a very good short game."

Langer is one of the best chippers and bunker players there is, and his other great strength, that is a priceless asset around Augusta, is the quality of his long iron play. "You mean making up for not being long off the tee?" he smiles. "I'm not a long hitter, as we all know, so I have got to be much more precise and accurate with the irons."

But is it not still odd that both Langer and Crenshaw are two-time champions with their diametrically opposed reputations on the greens? "Probably not. I think Crenshaw has been one of the best putters for years and years, but I think I can be a good putter and have been for years, but can be bad, too.

"But there is more to good putting at Augusta than just putting. You need to hit good iron shots in the right places so you have easier putts, and you have to have a good chipping and bunker game so that when you miss a green, you don't have 15-to-20 footers to save par."

Langer may have been prey to the yips, but he has always come back to be a more than functional putter. Last year, the wobblies struck for the fourth time and Langer turned to a broomhandle putter. No one has won at Augusta with a long putter, but he is not concerned. "I actually played up there a couple of days a few weeks ago. The greens weren't as fast as they will be in the tournament but I thought I putted pretty well."

Turning to the broomhandle has put the sparkle back into Langer's play after a dreadful 1996. He was troubled by injuries early on and when his putting went again, the lack of confidence spread through his game. He did manage to end on a high note by winning the Dunhill Asian Masters and his form this year has been encouraging.

"I am healthier and my game seems to be steadier than this time last year. I seem to be putting better and have had some reasonably good results. I always look forward to going back to Augusta. There is an aura which inspires you. I like the way the course is so beautifully manicured. You never seem to get a bad lie."

And apart from himself, who does Langer fancy? Tiger Woods? "Yes, he's one of my favourites for the week. After all, he's going to be hitting five or six clubs less into every green than I will."