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Bernhard Langer
Bernhard Langer raced out of the gate, and was 5 under through his first six holes on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Langer kicks off major quest with strong start

As successful as he's been in his first few years on the Champions Tour, Bernhard Langer has yet to win a senior major. He could be on his way, though, as he opened with a 66 Thursday tie the course record and share the first-round lead with Robin Freeman. Tom Lehman and Brad Bryant are tied for third, two shots back.

By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer

PARKER, Colo. – Germany’s Bernhard Langer has been a dominating force since joining the Champions Tour late in 2007, racking up 10 wins over that time.

He is, however, missing a major championship victory on the 50-and-over circuit.

That could change this week at Colorado Golf Club and the 71st Senior PGA Championship for the two-time Masters champion.

Langer, who fancies himself a “pretty decent wind player,” was spectacular in the first round on Thursday when the wind kicked up to 35 mph at times, firing a 6-under 66 to tie the course record set by Robin Freeman an hour earlier. They share the lead, two shots clear of Brad Bryant and Tom Lehman, who had it to 5 under late in the day until a bogey at the last.

“There's different thoughts to playing in the wind,” said Langer, a two-time winner on the Champions Tour in 2010 and a runner up in the 2008 Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill. “Obviously you’ve got to flight your ball and you’ve got to hit the shape that you're thinking you're going to hit.  Because if you're thinking you're going to hit a draw and you're going to hit a fade into a crosswind, then it's a huge difference.”

Playing the back nine first, Langer busted out of the gates and was actually 5 under through his first six holes, thanks to birdies on Nos. 11, 12 and 15 and a hole-out from just over 100 yards on the short, par-4 14th hole for eagle.

“I hit 3-iron off the tee and a full sand wedge and backed it up into the hole. That was pretty exciting,” Langer said. “It's always nice to do it [make eagle], but you still have to play the rest, I still had 14 holes to go or 13, and I had to play them, whether I made eagle there or birdie or par.  But, yeah, it's nice to get under, in the red numbers, get under par early and take it from there.  It's certainly better than being a couple over.”

Unlike Langer, success in the form of crystal trophies hasn’t been a part of Freeman’s journeyman career. In fact, in 276 starts on the PGA Tour, the 51-year-old has yet to record a victory.

Furthermore, he does not have full playing privileges on the Champions Tour and only made two previous starts before this week. One of those was a solid tie for 12th at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on May 2.

Before heading to Parker for the Senior PGA Championship, Freeman had a new, oversized grip installed on his putter. The reason, Freeman said, is he has a tendency to get “handsy,” which throws putts off line. With the oversized grip fitting snug in his palms, Freeman said the hands don’t interfere and he can make a more consistent stroke.

Freeman wasn’t kidding, either. He needed just 26 putts in Round 1, and at least five of those were over 15 feet in length.

“Probably the best putting round I had in maybe ever,” Freeman said. “It was great.  It was very good on the greens.  I have caddie who is a great friend of mine, who is a PGA Professional named Lou Cooper, who has caddied for me this week.  And he reads greens very well.  And we did a lot of mapping of the greens in practice rounds this week.  And he read them very well.  I hit them the correct speeds and I made a few.  So that was kind of fun.”

In all, only 20 players broke par and a mere eight of those were in the 60s.

One of those in the 60s, also turned out to be the feel-good story of the day PGA Professional Bill Loeffler went from happy-to-be-here to serious contender after posting an impressive 3-under 69 and is just three shots off the pace with Champions Tour rookie Fred Couples, Bill Glasson and Tom Kite.

The Denver native grinded his way to a 20th-place showing in the Senior PGA Professional National Championship last October to earn his spot in the field at Colorado Golf Club and an all-important “home game.”

On Thursday, Loeffler couldn’t have been more pleased with his efforts.

“I played above my expectations today, obviously,” admitted Loeffler, the PGA General Manager and co-owner of Highlands Ranch Golf Club and the Links Golf Club in Denver. “I'm very grateful that it happened that way. The course was great. Beautiful. They prepared it and set it up I think in anticipation of what hopefully will not come, which are the high winds.  But they set it up great, the greens were a little bit slower than yesterday's practice round.  I would say maybe even significantly slower. It was just fun to play the golf course.  I love the course.  And I had a blast.”

Not everyone had as much fun as Loeffler. Among the notables who struggled mightily in the opening round were Tommy Armour III and John Cook, each with a 6-over 78, Sandy Lyle with an 8-over 80 and former champions Loren Roberts and Denis Watson, each with a 5-over 77.

The players in the morning wave on Thursday certainly fared better. As the day wore on, the winds picked up and the greens were less forgiving. The tables will be turned on the current leaders Friday, as they tee off later in the day and will have to play through the brunt of the wind.

“It's always important to get as many birdies in any tournament as you can,” regardless of the draw, Loeffler said. 
 

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