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For 25 years—since his first Masters victory in 1985—Bernhard Langer has been golf's international man of mystery. He (along with Tom Watson) is the game's most exemplary stoic, but now and then he lets everything go. You may remember his pained face upon missing the six-foot putt that meant Europe would lose the 1991 Ryder Cup. Which was almost identical to his elated face when he holed a playoff bunker shot to win a senior event in February. He likes überbright pants—lime green, sky blue, Day-Glo orange—often loaded with zippers, but he speaks in a Henry Kissinger dial-tone voice that promotes sound sleep. He treats shotmaking as a high science but turned to prayer to overcome the yips.
I should acknowledge here my particular interest in Langer. I watched the '85 Masters with several fellow caddies and a small group of players on the locker room TV at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Country Club, site of the Magnolia State Classic, the tournament that then played opposite Augusta. CBS announcers kept referring to Bernhard Langer of West Germany. My parents had fled Nazi Germany as kids in the late 1930s. Before that Masters, I never would have linked golf and Germany. Bernhard Langer of West Germany, Masters winner. It left me curious.
Langer and I both worked the next week at Hilton Head. My man there, George Archer, finished 67th and earned $824. Langer won in a playoff over Bobby Wadkins, as Langer's American wife, Vikki, walked the course wearing a LANGER'S LIKERS T-shirt. I can still see Langer marching up 18, backlit by the sun, the hair on his arms bleached by his job. A lean man. A photographer's dream.
Later that year—at the Dutch Open at the Noordwijkse Golf Club on the Netherlands coast—I caddied for Steve Elkington in his first pro tournament. For the windswept third round, on a gorgeous, seaside course, Elkington was paired with Langer. By that point Langer's story was getting out. How he had turned pro at 15 and grown up in a tiny village in southern Germany with his waitressing, garden-growing mother and his bricklaying father, who had served in the German army during World War II. Elkington, owner of a dream swing himself, was captivated by Langer's golf: cut shots and hook shots and low bullets and high soft ones. Langer played the wind on every shot, and his golf was out of the Hogan playbook. "Tell you what," Elkington said to me after that Saturday round, "ol' Bernie can play." Elk was 22 and Langer 27.
I went to see Langer in late February, at his home in Boca Raton, in South Florida, a few days after his backyard playoff win over John Cook in the Allianz Classic, the one with the holed bunker shot. Langer is 52 now. He says he has put on about five pounds since '85, but you'd never know it. Except for his face, weathered and creased, he hasn't changed since that first Masters victory, at least on the outside. He remembers, as you would expect, some of the play-by-play of his two-shot triumph over Seve Ballesteros, Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange. He couldn't recall anything in particular from the '85 Dutch Open, but the Hilton Head week is etched in his mind.
"I had just won the Masters, I'm driving to Hilton Head with my beautiful young wife, and I felt empty," Langer says. His English is impressive. "I don't know why." He and Vikki—along with their two younger homeschooled children (the older two are out of the house)—live in a development called the Woodfield Country Club, between I-95 and Florida's turnpike. Langer's home is in a gated development within the gated development, and the streets are named for elite universities.
Langer is wearing shorts with several zippers. His cellphone is in a holster clipped to his waistband. Jason, 10, the youngest of the children, is sitting at a nearby table, doing math in a workbook. The house is vast, overwhelming its yard. All the golf stuff is in Langer's office.
Emptiness? With the winner's Augusta National green coat in your car, with money in the bank, with your beautiful young wife at your side, with the world at your feet? You'd have to be a deep man, I'd say, to acknowledge emptiness with all that going for you.
"In Hilton Head, I saw Bobby Clampett," Langer adds, "and he asked me if I wanted to attend the Wednesday night Tour Bible study group, and that's where I met Larry Moody [the leader of the group]. Larry said I needed to be reborn if I wanted eternal life. He said it was in John 3:3. I told him, 'I've been going to the Catholic church all my life. I've been an altar boy. Either your Bible is different from mine, or the Catholic church is wrong.' Larry said, 'Don't believe me because I say it. Read it for yourself.' I read the verse: 'Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'"
Something clicked for Langer, right then and there. An awakening. An intense desire to be born again. Soon after, Langer says, Vikki had a similar experience. (She declined to be interviewed.) Langer says his 1993 Masters win, which fell on Easter Sunday, is far more meaningful to him than the '85 victory "because I won as a Christian." By that he means after being born again.