Interview: Missing the birth of his first child convinced Bernhard Langer there is more to life than golf
You wouldn’t want to say this too loudly or in the presence of a woman who really does understand what true pain is all about, but watching the torture unfold at the Olympic Club last week, the thought occurred that the US Open has now become golf’s equivalent of childbirth.
Webb Simpson spoke of the nerves and the pressure as he homed in on victory. He said he couldn’t feel his legs in the closing holes, such was the stress, so fair play to him. He delivered part one of the Simpson family’s summer of joy, part two will come when his wife, Dowd, gives birth to their second child next month. Maybe Webb will compare their agony in their respective moments of truth. Or maybe not. The champion American doesn’t strike you as a man with a death wish. As we know, Simpson is going to miss the Open at Lytham to be with his wife in case labour day comes early.
It was a coincidence, therefore, that in publicising the Senior Open at Turnberry beginning 26 July, Bernhard Langer was the one who did the talking, because the German has his own story about golf and children.
He takes us back to the Ailsa for the Open of 1986, a week we remember only for Greg Norman’s brilliance and not for Langer struggling manfully to try to stay with him, which, of course, he couldn’t. Nobody could. Langer was lying eighth after three rounds, seven shots behind the Australian and in need of a miracle that he knew he wasn’t going to get. His mind, it has to be said, was elsewhere.
“My oldest daughter, our first child, was born that Saturday night,” he says. “I wanted to be home and my wife actually lied to me the night before. I called every morning and evening asking how are things going and they’d say, ‘Everything’s great, they’re out for a walk’ and yet she was already in the hospital giving birth. They never gave me the chance to get home so, when I woke up on Sunday morning and made my first phone call, they said you’re a dad now and you have a healthy daughter.
“They tricked me. They didn’t want me to come home and, in golfing terms, they did the right thing. But being there with your wife for the birth of your first child is more important than any golf tournament. Had I known I would have dropped everything and gone home. Definitely. So I got out to the golf course and they had the message on the leaderboard: ‘Congratulations Bernhard Langer on becoming a dad’.”
Even now, 26 years later, there is regret in his voice about that. You tell him that a single-minded golfer might not think twice about going home while there was even a slight chance of winning the Open but he says he was never like that. He had balance in his life. He had his golf and he had his family and he knew full well which was more important – and it wasn’t the golf.
“The first reaction [when told he had a daughter] was tremendous relief that mother and child were healthy, but secondly I was annoyed that I had missed a great opportunity to be there to support my wife and hold her hand while she was going through the agony of giving birth. I had missed the joy of holding that baby in my arms when she first came out of the womb. Would a dominant player have felt that? Well that all depends on the player. I think you can be both, you can be a great family man and have your priorities right yet still play at a high level.
“But there are a lot of things you have to juggle around and there are times when you have to make a few compromises. I believe in the long run it’s healthier for the person to bring all those things into balance instead of being lopsided by focusing 98 per cent on golf while everything else is not important. You can only do that for a short time, I believe, and then it’s going to tear down your golf game too.”
You just knew at that point that a Tiger Woods reference was coming. “It’s very difficult to have a normal life. I was never a dominant player, but I was up there for a few years and it does take a lot away from your normal life. Let’s take Tiger Woods, he can’t show his face anywhere without people wanting to get his autograph or have their picture taken with him. He can’t go out and stroll through the city or go to a restaurant and sit down like a normal Joe and expect to eat his dinner in peace and quiet. It’s not going to happen. So you’re going to have to make some adjustments and even in the preparation for a major, the media coverage is so big now that the leading players spend hours talking when they would rather be practising.
“Then you’ve got to set aside time for your fans too, signing autographs for hours a week and for some people all that becomes frustrating to the point where some players don’t want to be dominant.”
Even in defeat, Tiger is the topic of conversation. Tiger and Jack’s record (Nicklaus’ 18 majors) and golf’s changing landscape. “It’s not too late but every year it will get harder. I personally thought he would break Jack’s record years ago and I still think he has a chance, but every year that passes will make it harder. I’ve been surprised how long it has taken him to get back to a competitive level where he feels ready to win tournaments and majors.”
We’ve now had nine first-time major winners in a row, from Simpson last Sunday right back to Graeme McDowell two years ago and, in between them, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen. Nine first-timers on the bounce. In the history of the game this has never happened before.
It wasn’t that long ago – six or seven years, maybe – when we were talking about the Big Five – Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. The Big Five became the Big Four when Goosen faded. Then it became the Big Two with Tiger and Phil and now there’s no Mr Big at all.
“That’s what people don’t understand,” says Langer. “To be dominant you don’t just need a good golf swing, you need a whole lot of stuff. If you had asked me who I thought would be the next dominant player I would have said Rory because he is still very young and has phenomenal technique. But the mental side needs to be there, the commitment, the private life and the woman in it needs to be right because it all matters.
“The people that surround you, whether it’s your manager, your caddie, your family and friends – they all play an intricate part in how you perform on the golf course and handle the pressure. There are so many aspects to being successful that people don’t see. Nobody knew what Tiger Woods was up to behind closed doors and there’s so many things going on that need to be right to allow you to play at a level that is better than anyone else in the world.”
For Langer, it’s a parallel universe from the one he’s living in on the Senior Tour. Not that he’s complaining. The Senior Tour has been good to him. In 2010 it was spectacularly good when he beat Corey Pavin by a single stroke to win the Senior Open at Carnoustie and, a week later, beat Fred Couples by three shots to take the Senior US Open at Sahalee Country Club in Washington.
Winning in Britain was especially important to him given that the Open was the event he always wanted to win but never did. Two Green Jackets, but no Claret Jug despite several flirtations with glory, including four top threes in the 1980s and two more in 1993 and 2001, two of which saw him begin the final day in a share of the lead.
“To win at a great golf course like Carnoustie and to do so in the manner I did with Corey and a bunch of other guys snapping at my heels all the time made it even more special. My brother and a couple of friends had come over to watch me so it was a fantastic week from start to finish. You know my history at the Open, it was always the tournament that I wanted to win and, though I came so close, I never made it. That was a little bit of revenge. Although it’s not quite the same, it’s still very meaningful to beat the best on great golf courses.”
There are few greater than the one he will grace next month.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east