Langer drives home the message

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The Independent Online
WHEN the chiming bells of St Andrews call the world's finest golfers to the last day of their labours on the Old Course today, none will answer with a more resolute spirit than Bernhard Langer whose devoted steadiness amid golf's many temptations, distractions and nervous dispositions is an example to all.

These qualities do not always reward the bearer with spectacular success - and Langer will need a miracle to please his followers in the final round today - but, when it comes to the long road, golf does not possess a more reliable pilgrim. Certainly, the loudly creaking European Ryder Cup team will be leaning heavily on the rock-solid German over the next two months.

For all his single-minded concentration on the game and its routines, however, Langer has continued to give the impression that he is on a mission that has a destination way beyond the furthest green. Since the start of a career that has been unique in several respects he has managed to follow an independent and singular path in a game that tends to create comparable images.

A few hundred yards from the first tee at the Old Course is the spot where Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake for heresy in 1538. A student at St Andrews University, Hamilton took up with Martin Luther's doctrines and became the first martyr of the Scottish reformation. I can't imagine what they would have done to him if they'd caught him playing golf on a Sunday for money. But many golfers have found no problem in equating the beliefs of their soul with the brashly materialistic nature of their sporting calling and Langer is the most successful at the equation.

He has won more money worldwide than any other player - over pounds 4m during his 20 years on the European Tour - while practising the enthusiastic and sometimes evangelical Christianity which is at the root of his unfailingly polite and friendly dealings with everyone. He will lead a prayer meeting at a tournament but be just as ready to defend the paying of appearance money to the stars which is one of the game's most contentious inequalities.

But Langer's background provides an acceptable reason for his rationale. He has done nothing else but play golf for a living. He left school at 14 and has never been what you might call an amateur golfer. After his father escaped from a Russian prisoner-of-war train bound for Siberia at the end of the war, the Langer family settled in humble circumstances in Augsburg, Bavaria, and as early as eight years of age Bernhard joined his brother Erwin as a caddie at the local club, cycling seven miles to carry the bags and return to put every penny earned into the family purse.

By the age of 15 he was a club professional, by 17 he had won the German national title and by 18 he expressed his ambitions as "a million Deutschmarks in the bank, a beautiful wife, a big car and a lovely house". By the age of 28 he had all these things and more but it was not the fulfilment he had been looking for. Even now, his religious activities enriching a lifestyle that includes a house in Florida, he gives the impression that his career could take another turning that involves spreading the gospel.

A more pressing ambition concerns the Ryder Cup. When that biennial match was last held in the States, at Kiawah Island in 1991, it fell to him to face a putt of six feet to retain the Cup. He failed to hole it and the Americans celebrated with a less than comforting hysteria.

During his career, Langer has faced a number of very difficult times in his life, not least being three different attacks of the putting yips which causes involuntary twitches as you attempt to apply the blade to the ball; but the before and after of that putt represented a mental ordeal that might have had a lasting effect on characters of lesser strength. Langer's attempt to keep a stiff upper lip lasted only until he reached the locker-room and a tearful embrace from Seve Ballesteros.

Langer doesn't dismiss the powerful memory of the putt: "At first it was something that consumed me but from a Christian point of view there was only one perfect human being, the Lord Jesus, and we killed him. I only missed a putt." Later, he felt some comfort in reflecting: "It was better that I had to take that putt rather than any of the others. I probably got over it better and faster than some might have done."

Indeed, so well did he get over it that he won a tournament the following week; but there remains a twinge that regaining the Ryder Cup in Rochester, New York, in September would remove for ever. Representing Europe in the Ryder Cup has an extra benefit for Langer for it gives him a sense of international "belonging" not often available to a star whose rating in his own country falls well short of lionisation.

Despite a 100 per cent increase in the number of German golfers during the last 10 years there are still only 250,000 in the country and, despite the admiration Langer has created in the rest of the world, his recognition potential in Berlin High Street is not good. If he won the Open today, this may change. It might have made a difference if in 1985 he had been voted Sportsman of the Year after winning the US Masters, a brilliant performance for a suspect putter. But three months after Augusta, a 17- year-old called Boris Becker won Wimbledon and Langer's national recognition perished in the rush.

While it is true that his off-course personality and way of life do not engender massive interest, to the golfer his application is close to inspirational. No player can match his consistency and when his form runs true his advance on a title is remorseless. His admirers look forward to being reminded of that distinct ability, if not this Sunday then some Sunday soon.