Profile: On a swing and a prayer: Bernhard Langer: Robert Green assesses the qualities of a golf master who hopes to be in divine form in Augusta

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The Independent Online
THIS morning, Easter Sunday, Bernhard Langer will be attending church. Same as last year. Same as every year.

Last Easter Sunday, he spent the afternoon beating Chip Beck for the Masters title. This year, he could while away the time downing a couple of Becks in front of the TV. It is more likely, though, he will devote most of it to his wife, Vikki, and their three children. His bid to retain the champion's green jacket does not begin until Thursday, and besides, religion and his family are the biggest things in the life of Langer.

'I really try to put God as my No 1 priority,' he said. 'When I wake up in the morning, the first minute or two I ask Him to help me that day. To help me with my thoughts and actions.'

Langer is aware of the cynicism that such public declarations can generate. When they emanate from a sportsman such as the 36- year-old German golfer, they imply that the Lord does not have more important matters to attend to at this time than which millionaire might acquire possession of a bright green blazer at some exclusive golf club in America's Deep South.

Langer's humble origins - he is the son of a Czech refugee who jumped a Russian prisoner-of-war train and landed on German soil in 1945 - have always enabled him to maintain a sense of perspective over the good fortune of his financial riches; his immersion in his faith has lent an urbane and serene dimension to his temperament and a generosity of spirit to his deceptively steely character.

When Greg Norman beat him for the Open Championship at Sandwich last July Langer told him as they walked up the 18th fairway: 'That was the greatest golf I've ever seen. You deserved to win.' Norman considers it the most graceful tribute he has ever been accorded.

It was somehow appropriate that Langer effectively secured his Masters victory last year, his second triumph at Augusta and his second major championship overall, with an eagle three at the 13th, the last of a three-hole stretch known as Amen Corner.

Religious allusions are not entirely contrived when it comes to discussing the less celestial topic of Langer's golf game. Conventional wisdom says that to win at Augusta you have to putt like God - or at least like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw et al in their prime. Langer used to putt like a man in need of divine assistance. In terms of courage and determination, Langer is second to none; when it came to putting he used to be second to everyone.

On a course which presents such a demanding examination of the art as does Augusta National, the prudent golfer thinks about his second putt before attempting his first. In the bad old days, Langer, involuntarily, used to think about his third putt before essaying his first. Consequently, he would take four or five. Bob Hope used to gulp: 'What's so bad about four-putting? I like to putt.' On that basis, Langer's efforts belied the accuracy of the old axiom about a German joke being no laughing matter. Langer was the Marty Feldman of the pro tour.

His putting problems had their genesis in his upbringing in Germany, where golf used to be about as popular as the Berlin Wall. Course maintenance was a primitive science in Bavaria in the early 1970s, and the greens had almost as much grass as the fairways. 'I didn't have a stroke,' Langer recalled. 'I just blasted the ball to get it to the hole.' Even after he had become a regular tournament winner he would carry two putters in his bag, as if to let the first choice know that its prospects of permanent employment were tenuous. Even in winning his first Masters, in 1985, one blade made way for another after 36 holes.

The history of Langer's trials and tribulations on the greens has been rehearsed almost to exhaustion. Suffice to say here that he has conquered the 'yips' three times, latterly with an ungainly but hugely functional method whereby his right hand simultaneously clasps his left forearm and the putter-grip. When he missed a six-foot putt on the final green of the 1991 Ryder Cup that would have kept the trophy in European hands, sceptics suggested it was another example of his fallibility, but the truth is that he had holed similar putts at the three previous holes, each of them while under excruciating pressure, and no one goes on making them forever.

As the venerable golf writer Bernard Darwin once wrote: 'Nemo omnibus horis sapit.' Which he colloquially translated as 'Everybody misses the short ones sometimes.' And one week after missing that putt Langer holed from 12 feet on the final hole to catch Rodger Davis in the German Masters before beating him in a play-off.

Langer adopted his present putting grip because it offered a pragmatic solution to the problem of keeping the smaller muscles, which are more prone to the odd twitch when you can least afford it, out of his stroke. Having conquered that affliction again, last winter he embarked on a technical regimen under the supervision of the golf guru David Leadbetter that will see him incorporate some fundamental changes into his full swing over the coming months and years.

'The biggest thing we have been working on is trying to improve the line of his swing,' Leadbetter said. 'His old action could be described as a three-loop affair - he was too far inside the line going back, too much outside coming down, and into impact he would go 'under' the ball. So he had to build compensations into his swing, which inevitably leads to inconsistency and in his case also put strain on his back.'

Langer and Leadbetter are seeking to make his swing 'more straight up-and-down the line'. Leadbetter added: 'The changes he is making should enable him to hit the ball higher and they should reduce the stress on his back. We have now got him more erect at address, with less knee flex. Already, his rhythm is better.'

This meddling with a method is part of a long-term strategy. There will be no Faldo-style total revamp for Langer. He will assimilate the refinements into his swing gradually.

But then rushing has never been Langer's metier. As the golf writer Peter Dobereiner once asked: 'Why does Langer linger longer on the golf course?' The way he used to play, he would certainly have been outpaced by the tortoise. He might have been classy and punctual but he was also careful and punctilious - like a man in a Porsche, but one with his eye on the speed limit.

'I was slow two or three years ago,' Langer admitted, 'probably one of the slowest. But I've changed. And right now I'm not the fastest but I'm not the slowest either.'

The great Walter Hagen once remarked that a golfer might as well take time to smell the flowers along the way. The fact that a round with Langer used to take in the equivalent of a tour of Kew Gardens cannot obscure the fact that he always has been a pretty nifty golfer. His career record shows that he has won 29 times in Europe and 41 times world-wide. Only two men, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo, have successfully defended the Masters, which means Langer faces an historically daunting task in seeking to keep his title next week. But few men are better equipped to buck the odds.

His guide to coping with the specific challenges posed by Augusta is out of the textbook. 'The the most important thing is to hit good iron shots into the right position so that you have an easier putt,' he said. 'But to hit good iron shots, it helps to be in a good position with your driver, and Augusta suits the long hitters. Some guys hit it 40 yards past me.'

Indeed, Langer has won the Masters twice despite his past track record as a poor putter, despite the fact that he is not the longest of hitters, and despite the fact that he strikes the ball low when the prevailing philosophy has it that at Augusta you need to hit it high. How did he do it? 'On both occasions I hit my irons precisely, and my short game has been good. At Augusta there is no rough around the greens, which means you need imagination to play the right shot. And I have a lot of imagination.'

One could put his success down to good old Germanic determination. With a bit of help from above, perhaps.

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