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Every spring in the sleepy, two-Hardee's town of Augusta, Ga., the locals hand out a free green sport coat. And, nearly every spring, American golfers take that opportunity to hide behind the nearest dogwood.
For five of the last six years the green sport coat that goes to the winner of the best little golf tournament in America has been claimed by a European. Nobody can quite figure it out. Do the Americans lose their patience or their courage? Do they lack desire or suffer an excess of it? Do they cherish the tournament too much or not enough?
This year the Masters champion's green coat was hoisted onto the shoulders of another European, Bernhard Langer of Anhausen, Germany, who routed the field at Augusta National Golf Club by four shots. But this time the reason the Americans lost was simple. Though Langer led throughout Sunday's final round, he played as if he were behind. And though the Americans were behind, they played as if they were in the lead.
Remember when Germany always finished second? Not any Langer. From the moment he woke up with a four-shot cushion on Easter Sunday, choosing a final-round wardrobe of green pants and a yellow shirt ("We thought it would go well at the end," said his American wife, Vikki), until he hit a driver at the 18th hole with a five-shot lead, Langer behaved as if he were in the passing lane on the Autobahn. The bigger his lead got, the more daring he became. When the Americans were laying up, Langer was going for it. When the Americans were leaving putts on the lips of holes, Langer was leaving them in hearts. Later, when Langer was trying on his second green coat—he earned his first in 1985—the Americans were trying on second place.
All of which surprised nobody. In his three tournaments in the U.S. so far this year, the 35-year-old Langer has been as dependable as the 5:15 to Hamburg. He finished sixth at Bay Hill, second at The Players Championship and first at the first major of the year. That's $609,500. Not bad work—and no heavy lifting.
However, what Langer earned with his 11-under-par 277 at Augusta was respect, from American fans and from American television, both of which he believes have long abused him. Only three weeks earlier, as he was watching his iron shot fly to the famous island green 17th in the heat of The Players Championship at Saw-grass, someone in the gallery hollered, "Go in the water!" That made his blood burn—"as bad a comment as I've ever heard in my life on a golf course," he said—but not much worse than it does when he ponders U.S. television. "In the past when I was in contention, they would show me only two or three times," he says. "But they would show someone five shots behind me 10 or 15 times."
Langer can no longer be ignored. He is the elephant in the living room. He leads the American tour in prize money. Hell, for that matter, at the usual 10% cut, his caddie, Peter Coleman, would be 87th on the PGA Tour money list, just ahead of Craig Stadler. Yet Langer isn't even a Tour member. Commissioner Deane Beman and the Tour allow non-Tour players to play only 10 times a year on these shores. America's players should mow Beman's lawn for free. If Langer were allowed to hang around all year, there might be nothing left for some of them to do but conduct clinics at Nevada Bob's.
Even the warts of Langer's golf game are about to get cool. Expect two thirds of the guys at your club to come out on the putting green on Saturday hunched over in the Langer Lock, the curious yip grip in which Langer clamps the top of the putter to the middle of his left forearm with his right hand, as though he were taking his own blood pressure. "Sure is, uh, functional, isn't it?" said Chip Beck, the last U.S. player Langer vanquished at Augusta. "I might try it."
Actually, what Beck should borrow from Langer is not the grip but guts. All of Sunday, Langer gambled and won. And when it came time for Beck to gamble, he didn't and lost. "I was firing at every flag," said Langer. "I even surprised myself."
By the time Langer reached Augusta's legendary back nine, his once comfortable four-shot lead had been whittled to only one stroke over American Dan Foreman and two over Beck. "I knew that I wouldn't win the tournament unless I played aggressively," said Langer later. "Nobody was going to give it to me."