How Bernhard Langer beat Vijay Singh, Father Time, and Jack Nicklaus at the Senior PGA

By Mike Lopresti
Published on
How Bernhard Langer beat Vijay Singh, Father Time, and Jack Nicklaus at the Senior PGA

This was a fine way for two 50-something men to spend their Sunday afternoon. Some guys their age might use the holiday weekend to work in the garden. Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh decided the Senior PGA Championship, each refusing to blink.

You don’t know need to be young to stage an epic duel. That was the message Sunday from the banks of the Potomac. Oh, and one other thing. It is truly magical when a golfer can say these words:

“I passed Jack Nicklaus (in anything).”

Even the bald eagle watching from a nearby tree seemed enthralled, probably thinking what the rest of us were. You usually have to watch the kids to see something like this.

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But then the 59-year-old in white, Langer, has won two Masters. The 54-year-old in gray, Singh, took the PGA Championship twice and the Masters once. They know what the chase for glory at a major feels like. And they both went at this in familiar fashion – loads of focus and little conversation. “I don’t like to talk to anybody when I’m playing golf,” Singh had said the day before. “And I think he’s the same.”

In this Tale of two Champions, they were never separated by more than two strokes, and were tied for nine holes in a row, until as Langer put it, “I got my nose in front." Middle-aged mano a middle-aged mano. In the end, Langer, carrying Bible verses from Proverbs to help him along, would have his history by one stroke – his ninth senior major victory to pass Nicklaus, his unprecedented feat of winning all five senior majors, his second major in a row. He is chewing up the Champions Tour.

“I’m honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Nicklaus,” Langer said of this week’s opportunity. Plus, there was this. How often does an athlete set a sports record in anything at the age of 59?

“People say the chances are slimmer when you get older. I try to ignore that,” Langer said.

Time leaves its spike marks all over the senior tour. Take the conversation between these two earlier in the week, sharing tales of past physical woes; Langer his knee troubles, Singh his foot issues. “That’s a common talk on this tour,” Langer said. “What is hurting today, and what was hurting last week.”

Or their conversation as they shook hands Sunday. Singh had flinched with putting problems. Langer knows all about that.

“If he had made a few putts, he would have had me,” Langer said. “I told him, `I know what you’re going through, because I had the yips four times in my career.”

Ah, memories. But that’s what you get on this tour.

This was Fred Funk explaining the first big advice he received when he took up the game. “First starting golf? My dad said don’t throw the club.”

This was John Daly describing how he learned golf while growing up near a baseball field. “Hit cuts to right, straight shots over center field, hooks down the third base line. Flops to the pitcher’s mound. Pitch and runs to first, second and third. That’s how I learned how to play.”

You get perspective, honed by the years.

“When I go home I put the clubs away for three or four days, don’t touch them,” Langer said. “I’ve learned I need time away from the game, and I need periods of rest, do other things, enjoy life in a different way. And then when it’s time to come back out, I’m eager again.

“I’m not home practicing eight hours every day. That was me 30 years ago, not now.”

Miguel Angel Jiminez was trying to describe his mass appeal. He mentioned his cigars, the red wine, his stretching routine on the course, looking like just another older guy trying to get loose.

“I like to enjoy my life and I don’t hide it … We are showmen. We have to put smiles to the people.”

It was Funk who had the perfect description of life as a professional golfer.

“When you’re playing poorly, you’re really struggling to figure out why you are, and whether you’re ever going to get out of it. And when you’re playing good, you’re trying so hard not to fall out of that. It’s a game of anxiety.”

But one thing never changes with the years, bad knees or not, graying hair or not. Sunday is about competition, when there is a golf tournament to be won, or lost.

Langer has been the Prince of Darkness on the Champions Tour, his dominance so utter and complete, there has seemed only one analogy to explore.

Is he the senior version of Tiger Woods in his prime?

His colleagues are not quite on board with that.

“Comparing anybody to Tiger isn’t really going to work,” Rocco Mediate said.

“I think it’s more of a fair fight against Bernhard than it was Tiger,” Lee Janzen added.

Tom Lehman mentioned that when Woods was in the lead and on his game, he was basically uncatchable. “I feel like Bernhard is catchable, but you’ve got to play awfully, awfully well.”

Still, Singh just did that most of the time, and still couldn’t beat him. Which is why the remarkable chapter that Langer is putting at the end of his career is made even more special by a day such as Sunday.

“I’ve always had the desire. It’s part of me,” Langer said this week. "If I play you in ping-pong, I want to beat you. If we play cards, I want to win.”

You hear that at 40. But 59? We saw it Sunday, when pushed by a similarly determined foe who has not lost his fire, either. Age did not matter, and the Legend of Bernhard Langer at Twilight rolled on.