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Bernhard Langer, a Masters Stalwart for 40 Years, Sits This One Out

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Bernhard Langer was set to play in his final Masters Tournament this week. He first played there in 1982, when he was cut, and he has missed only the 2011 Masters, because of a thumb injury, since he won his first in 1985.

This year’s event was supposed to be a valedictory for a player, who, at 66, had also won the tournament in 1993 and contended in the final round as recently as 2020, when he finished tied for 29th. That put him a stroke ahead of Bryson DeChambeau, the reigning United States Open champion at the time, who consistently out-drove Langer by about 100 yards all week.

Instead, the perennially fit Langer was felled by something that has likely taken down some of his Florida neighbors who aren’t two-time Masters champions: a pickleball injury.

It could have been worse, he said in an interview in March. A neighbor who is a foot and ankle surgeon ran over when he saw Langer drop to the ground and sent Langer for an M.R.I. He had torn his Achilles’ tendon, and the doctor got him into a stabilizing boot so he wouldn’t injure his foot further.

“I started rehab three days after surgery,” he said.

It’s a tough way for a golf great to go down. But the more remarkable feat might be that Langer lasted this long at this level. While aging rockers like the Rolling Stones can just keep replaying their hits, golfers have to continue producing exceptional shots against players a third their age.

He’s done it at the Masters. He’s also done it on the PGA Tour Champions, where players in their early 50s usually dominate when they first play after the PGA Tour. He has won more tournaments on the Champions tour than any other player; he has also set a record for the most senior major titles, at 12.

How has he kept going this long at such a high level?

“I was always into fitness,” he said. “In my younger days I did more cardio stuff and other sports that kept me in good shape. When I moved to America in the 1980s, I got used to going to fitness centers, lifting weight, etc. In my generation, not all of us were great athletes. Many players would spend more time in the bar after a round than on the range or the putting green.”

As he got older his workouts changed and his focus shifted more to maintaining his flexibility and his strength. But that’s not to say he always found them enjoyable: “Workouts are a lot of tedious time,” he said.

In addition to keeping fit, though, Langer said he had continued to work on the mental side of his game. Part of that involves knowing what he can do and what he can’t do.

“I have to play a game Bernhard Langer can play,” he said. “I have to know my strengths and weaknesses. I cannot hit a 1-iron 250 yards in the air and make it stop on a dime. I have to play my game.”

He credits this with letting him stay competitive at the Masters against younger, longer-hitting players, like Tiger Woods.

“They said Tiger was intimidating when he first came out,” Langer said. “I didn’t think he was intimidating as a person. I thought his length was intimidating, but I always played the course. It’s not who you play against. You really play against yourself or the golf course.”

While Langer’s contemporaries marvel at his dedication, some are also right there with him in the fitness trailer.

“Langer is ageless,” said Scott McCarron, 58, another standout among Champions tour players. McCarron was fit in his prime and has since become stronger and more muscled on the over-50 tour. It’s paid off. When he won the Senior Players Championship in 2017, he received an invitation to play in the Players Championship on the PGA Tour.

“The fitness world on the Champions tour has skyrocketed,” he said. “Just about every guy is working out. There are so many more guys working out and stretching than ever before. On the PGA Tour you don’t think about the end. On the Champions tour you know there’s an end. Is it 55 or 58?”

While the Champions tour events have three rounds instead of the four on the PGA Tour, the players are indeed working hard.

“We’re still playing 27 weeks a year, and I’m hitting balls just the same,” McCarron said. “The old thing when you go out and play and drink beers after that, that’s not it anymore.

“At 58, I’m hitting the ball farther than I ever had,” he added. “Some of it is the equipment, but I’m in better shape and swinging the club faster, which isn’t the equipment.”

Some older players like Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington are also hitting the ball as far as they ever did and also occasionally contending on the PGA Tour.

Langer’s dominance of the Champions tour is the result of fitness, competitive grit and an ability to hit shots under pressure again and again. There, though, he was playing against many players much younger than him.

At the Masters, his success also has been knowing the course for 40 years. “In the hundreds of rounds I’ve played there I’ve learned a lot about the course,” he said. “I know where to go and where not to go. I know to miss it here or there. I’ve learned it from others or playing it before. That keeps me from shooting a very high score.”

But, Langer, who will be at the Champions Dinner for past Masters winners this year, added, “Where I used to hit an 8 iron, now I hit a 3 iron [a club that hits the ball lower and farther]. The course is way longer. I’m hitting way longer clubs into every hole. I enjoy the challenge.”

As for next year being his final appearance, Langer wouldn’t say. “I haven’t decided it yet,” he said. “We’ll come to that decision in a little while.”

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