Timing, in golf and history, is everything. You have to have a feel for it, and last week Bernhard Langer, a cross-handed (sometimes) putting German with the yips (sometimes), won a Masters Tournament that was gift wrapped for him by Curtis Strange. For three days, this 49th Masters was one of whimsy and cave-ins, knickers and adventurers' hats, acupuncture needles stuck in ears and wife-inspired secret game plans. But then on Sunday it was pure melodrama as Langer, his blond locks flowing, stalked the seemingly cool Strange, who had already won two tournaments in 1985, was the tour's leading money-winner and now may have been thinking about how he'd look in his new green Masters jacket.
There Strange was, the Silky Sullivan of Augusta. He had opened with a dismal 80 on Thursday. 12 shots off Gary Hallberg's leading 68, but by Sunday, with only six holes remaining, it was his tournament. He had just birdied the treacherous little 12th, and had a two-stroke lead with the guts of the course behind him. Then he hit into the water twice—first with a weak metal second shot to the par-5 13th, then with a wretched four-iron second shot to the par-5 15th—and made two disastrous bogeys. Langer, taking his sweet Teutonic time, had four birdies in the caldron of the last seven holes, including a clinching birdie with a 14-foot putt at the 17th, and came away with Strange's jacket.
Indeed, poignant though it was, Strange's debacle should not detract from one of the greatest finishes the Masters has seen as Langer, regarded worldwide as a tremendous iron player and a woeful putter—he putts cross-handed from inside 20 feet, regular from longer range—finished at six under par and two strokes ahead of Strange, Seve Ballesteros and Raymond Floyd.
Langer's victory was his first in a major—he has twice been runner-up in the British Open—as well as his first on the U.S. tour, and it moved the 27-year-old into the special category that had been predicted for him since he joined the U.S. circuit at the start of this season after six years as a dominant force in Europe. He also became the third foreigner to win the Masters, joining Ballesteros and Gary Player.
The son of a bricklayer, Langer was born and raised in Anhausen, West Germany, a country with only one public golf course. Langer is stylish and attractive, 5'9" and 155 pounds, with a wry sense of humor. When asked who is the second-best golfer in his country's history, he said, "I think Tony Kugelm√ºller. Good luck with the spelling." Langer added that there are approximately 130,000 golfers in West Germany, which would make things a little crowded on weekends were it not for the country's nearly 200 private courses.
Langer is known for a methodical style, a plodding approach that occasionally gets him in trouble. He was fined $500 three weeks ago at the TPC, and it didn't escape Masters officials' notice that he was playing very slowly on Sunday. Luckily, no penalty was imposed at Augusta where the price isn't money, but two strokes, exactly Langer's margin of victory. Langer is married to an American, Vikki, whom he met on a Florida golf course, and he tries to teach her 10 German words a day. Langer incessantly analyzes everything. He and his English caddie, Pete Coleman, measure the yardage at every tournament. First Coleman does it. The next day, Langer goes over the course again with a measuring wheel, just to double-check the figures. And he is forever changing clubs. At Augusta he switched irons and putters after struggling Thursday and Friday to tepid rounds of 72 and 74. "Sometimes we use different sets in every tournament," says Coleman.
Langer was the leader on the European circuit in both 1981 and '84. In 1979 he won the World Under-25 Championship by a whopping 17 strokes. He won the French, Dutch, Irish and Spanish Opens last year, yet in his own country he received scant attention, failing even to be nominated for Sportsperson of the Year honors.
Langer won at Augusta because he conquered his nemesis—the yips, those maddening spells of nerves that usually victimize older players, but which almost drove Langer from the game while still a young man. At Augusta, Langer seemed right at home on greens notorious for their linoleum surfaces. And to his credit, when Strange opened the door, the West German was willing to walk through, sinking birdie putts of 13, 3, 4 and 14 feet on the 12th, 13th, 15th and 17th holes, respectively.
Only a course with the character of Augusta National would have induced Strange to select his four-wood—four-metal, really—for his second shot at the 13th hole, a 465-yard dogleg left that normally is a softy for birdies. His playing partner, Floyd, the 54-hole leader, was struggling and now five strokes behind, and Strange held that two-stroke lead over Langer, who had birdied 13 and was playing the 14th. Another two strokes back were Ballesteros and Jay Haas.
Maybe Strange thought he was hot—he was four-under par for the round, had played the last 47 holes 15 under and was coming off that birdie at 12—or maybe it was that he attended Wake Forest on a scholarship funded by Arnold Palmer, and Arnie always sneered at caution. Go down with your boots on, Arnie said.
But Strange should have remembered the prudent path of Ben Crenshaw in 1984. When Crenshaw won the Masters he laid up on the back-nine par 5s. This time the boots would be waders.
Off a sidehill lie, 208 yards from the green. Strange took his swing. Watching the ball in the air, he muttered, "Come in." Golfers talk to their shots; this ball was not listening. It went into Rae's Creek fronting the green. A few minutes later, Strange was bent over the ball, peering at it as if it were a dying bird.
He hacked out a bogey, taking two to get out of the creek. In the gallery, his stepfather, Bill Neal, said, "That was a damn good test for my bypass operation." And his mother, Nancy, with her hand to her head and her eyes averted, kept repeating: "I don't know why he had to go for it."
That one shot changed the Masters. Until then, Strange's competition had been forced to take the chances. Now he was, too, and there was no margin for error, Langer having birdied the par-5, 500-yard 15th to tie Strange for the lead. On the 15th, Strange hit his four-iron approach and the ball rolled back into the pond in front of the green. He stood stunned and pale, the blood drained from his face.
Had Strange won he would have been the first man to win a major U.S. championship with a round of 80 or higher on his scorecard since John J. McDermott triumphed in the 1911 U.S. Open after starting out with an 81. (McDermott is known for two other things: He was the youngest Open winner in history, at 19, and he suffered a nervous breakdown after winning the Open again in 1912.)
In fact, after his round Thursday, Strange made a Friday afternoon plane reservation to go home to Virginia, so sure was he that he wouldn't make the cut. But he regained his touch on Friday, with an eagle on the 3rd hole and six birdies. He might have equaled the course record of 64 had he not bogeyed the 15th. Still, his 65 was remarkable, and it put him in position to challenge for the lead Saturday.
Strange's finish—later he called it "throwing up on myself—hurt him, but not nearly so much as it would have several years ago when he was keyed up and high strung. Even now his hair is graying, but he has mellowed out to the point where at least he can laugh about his plans. "I'D go home and beat my head against the wall," he said. He will have to live forever with the thought he expressed Sunday evening: "At one time I had everybody thinking about second place."
Strange's collapse was shocking, but this was a tournament of zany occurrences. If last year's event was constructed out of sentiment—Crenshaw at last winning his major—then this was all theater, almost burlesque at times. The early noise came from Hallberg and Payne Stewart. Hallberg was the one in the Indiana Jones fedora; Stewart had acupuncture needles in his ears, wore pastel knickers and was trying to win for his recently deceased father, William.
Then there was Floyd. He had taken the lead on Saturday after Hallberg faltered. Floyd later announced that he was playing better because of a secret game plan he was using to tame the course. He said his wife, Maria, a nongolfer but a scratch psychologist, had urged him to draw up a strategy for the tournament, figuring out a way to position his ball on the greens' fiendish nooks and plateaus, and it seemed to be working.
Ballesteros was only two back as the last round began—"perfect position," he said—and he was wearing his lucky blue sweater, but his putter let him down when it mattered. His brother, Manuel, who was caddying for him, spent the round bent over in agony on the greens as he tried to urge Seve's putts home, and even Seve was on hands and knees at the 16th hole when his chip for a birdie stayed out, effectively dashing his hopes.
Jack Nicklaus, with a last-round 69 in which he hit all 18 greens and put his second shot on two par 5s—just in case anyone thinks he is over the hill—finished at 286, with Hallberg, Bruce Lietzke and Craig Stadler. Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, both of whom had their chances, wound up in a group tied for 10th.
When play began on Thursday there were early 70s by two amateurs, John In-man (whose brother, Joe, is a pro), and Sam Randolph of Southern Cal. But by late afternoon the leader board reeked of old money: Watson 69, Trevino 70 and Nicklaus 71. Meanwhile, the nouveaux riches were struggling, TPC champion Calvin Peete to a 75, Mark O'Meara to a 73 and Strange to his 80.
Hallberg took the lead with his 68 and told the press that his hat aided his concentration because he could avoid looking at fans. He's a man of this techno-golf age, and he credited his fine play to a recent visit to a physics professor. Remember when pros went to pros?
Only a shot behind were Stewart and Watson. Stewart, in his hot pink and powder blue knickers, is a devotee of acupuncture. He has three needles in each ear, and he rubs them to control anxiety, increase concentration and alleviate stress. What's more, he says, they improve reception on his Walkman.
There was a feeling the grand old course could be had on Friday when both Sandy Lyle of Scotland and Strange posted early 65s. But when Thursday's leaders began their second-round trek, the mood changed.
At the end of 36 holes, Stadler, Watson and Stewart were tied at 140, four under. But all the names atop the leader board became yesterday's newspaper on Saturday when none could break 75.
Strange, meanwhile, roared around in 68, fueling speculation that his first round might have been shot by his identical twin, Allan. And in the midst of this, Langer edged up the ladder with the same score. Langer was four over par for the tournament after five holes on Saturday, but caught fire with four birdies plus an eagle on the 13th, where he skipped a shot over the creek. Someone asked him what the German word was for "yips." "There isn't any," he said. "Germans don't have the yips."
Floyd moved into the lead a stroke ahead of Strange, with Langer and Ballesteros another shot back. All told, 21 players were within five shots of the lead.
Strange looked invincible during the early going on Sunday with birdies on the 2nd, 4th, 7th and 8th holes. He three-putted from 40 feet at the 10th, but got that back with a seven-iron to 20 feet and a birdie putt at 12. Then came the calamitous 13th, and the calamitous 15th, Who will ever forget them?
Certainly not Bernhard Langer. After a two-putt birdie at 15, he saved par with a deft downhill putt from the back edge of the 16th, then birdied the 17th. Walking to the 18th tee, his playing companion, Ballesteros, clapped him admiringly on the back. Even a final-hole bogey couldn't tarnish Langer's victory. With his wife weeping softly on his shoulder, Langer watched Strange's final attempt for a birdie at 18 turn into another bogey. Then he walked up the hill to receive his green jacket. It was a perfect fit.