When it comes to PGA veteran Bernhard Langer, the phrase “ageless wonder” doesn’t begin to describe the degree of excellence and longevity displayed throughout the last several years of his career. In fact, as he approaches his 60th birthday, Langer is the most dominant player Champions Tour with 30 career wins (104 wins overall) and four Charles Schwab Cup championships since 2008.
But behind the stoic veneer, there’s a softhearted gentlemen whose life was forever changed just days after his most significant professional victory. In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Langer talks about his early days as a burgeoning golfer in Germany, how his first of two Masters win was bigger than he could have ever imagined, and how his very existence is nothing less than a miracle:
Chad Bonham: Tell me about your upbringing.
Bernhard Langer: I grew up in a town called Anhausen, which is about 30 minutes from Munich. I was the youngest of three children. My father was a bricklayer and my mother was a housewife. We were a very religious Roman Catholic family and I was an altar boy for 10 years.
Bonham: Tell me about your father’s involvement in World War II and how close he came to not making it out alive.
Langer: He was drafted into the German army and served as a motorbike messenger. After two years, he was captured and became a POW. They put him on a train that was most likely headed to Siberia. The train stopped at the Russian-German border and he along with several prisoners jumped off to escape. They were shot at, but he was unhurt and got away. My father walked through the woods at night heading west and then hid during the day. A few weeks later, the war was over and he settled down in Bavaria and got married to my mother.
Bonham: How did you get started playing golf?
Langer: I started caddying when he I nine years old and continued until I was 15. I started playing around that time and became pretty good without any lessons. When I turned 15, I completed school and started working as an assistant pro in Munich. By the time I was 18 years old, I was playing on the European tour and I’ve been a professional ever since.
Bonham: How did winning the 1985 Masters change your life?
Langer: The Monday after I won the Masters, I got up and was obviously thrilled with my win and being ranked number one in the world. I had just been married for one year. I had a beautiful young wife and lots of material things – houses, cars, basically everything that I could dream of and more. Yet there was still this void inside of me and I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. It was almost like, “is this all there is?” I knew there was more but I didn’t know what. Three days later, at the age of 28, I attended my first Bible study with my wife. Larry Moody was the tour chaplain and he was talking about John 3:3—the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. He talked about when Jesus said you have to be born again. That’s exactly what I needed to hear because I’d heard everything else in church. I could’ve quoted certain Bible verses. I knew most of the Bible stories. I was never told that before. I was told I had to be a good person and earn my way to Heaven and that’s clearly not what the Bible says. I got my Bible and I started coming to the Bible studies on a regular basis. I asked more questions and pretty soon it became very clear to me that I had to be born again to have eternal life and to have the grace of God.
Bonham: How did that impact your career?
Langer: It didn’t really change me as a player except that golf became less important.
Bonham: Then in 1993, you won the Masters again.
Langer: Yes, that was on Easter Sunday. By then, I had been a Christian for a few years. Winning the tournament on that day was very special for me.
Bonham: How have you managed to balance your career with your commitment to your family and your faith?
Langer: That’s a difficult thing to do even now. It’s very hard to balance and to compromise. Sometimes golf takes up too much time. I’d like to put God in the number one place and then my family and then my work, but it’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of demands on my time from various people whether its sponsors or media or other things. I want to workout. I need to practice to be competitive. I want to spend time with my kids and my wife. I want to spend time in the Bible studies and in prayer. That’s very demanding. And I need some sleep on top of that.
Bonham: Tell me about being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Langer: It’s a great honor to be part of that elite group and to be honored at a fairly young age. It just shows that I’ve played all over the world and won titles all over the world and was truly an international player for many years…It made me think back at how blessed I was to be playing golf so well for so many years and seeing a lot of the world and meeting a lot of people and basically doing something that I enjoy doing.
Bonham: After all these years, why do you still love the game?
Langer: First of all, it’s always a challenge. It’s different every day. It’s you against the golf course. You can’t blame anyone else. It’s just your own performance and there are so many aspects to the game. You have the long shots and the chip shots and the bunker shots and the putting. It’s all very different. It’s always been a challenge. I was good at just about any sport I tried, but golf has the most wonderful rules and there’s (the element) of integrity and honesty that comes with it. Golf was just a great game to pursue when I was younger and I don’t regret it.
Bonham: What are some of the reasons why the rules and codes of conduct exist within the game of golf?
Langer: They were passed on to us and it’s a game of integrity and a game of honesty. We have very specific codes of rules and regulations—especially out on tour. I don’t what the players do in their regular clubs, but on tour you don’t want to be known as a cheater. What other sport in the world does a player give himself penalty shots? The ball might move in the rough and nobody would know but we declare penalty shots on ourselves. In any other sports, they’re trying to get away with cheating and pushing and roughing the other guy up or getting an advantage one way or another. That makes it pretty unique.
Bonham: How did you learn about integrity?
Langer: I learned it at home growing up. It was pounded into me that I had to be honest, I had to be trustworthy and that people could rely on me. I grew up that way, but golf brought it to a newer level. It brought it out even more on a daily basis.
Bonham: What are some specific ways that integrity might be challenged on the golf course?
Langer: It happens every there week—there’s an incident where someone called a penalty on themselves. I’ve done it a couple of times. You stand over a three-foot putt and the ball moves because of the wind or something. Nobody would have known but you stop and call for a ref and say, “My ball moved.” And if you addressed it, you get a shot penalty. You just see it. You experience it. You follow through with it.
Bonham: When did you make a conscious decision to make integrity an important part of your life?
Langer: I’ve always wanted integrity. I’ve always wanted to be trustworthy and honesty. I grew up that way. When I accepted Christ, I was 26 years old and became a believer and then I wanted to be a role model for other people and younger kids. It became even more important. But it was always a big part of my life.
Bonham: Can you share a story where your integrity was challenged on the golf course?
Langer: I was at the Schwab Cup and I had a three-foot putt. I lined it up and made a practice putt then put the club down. As I looked at the ball, it just moved a smidgen. I mean it moved maybe two millimeters, but I could tell that the black line, where I’d lined it up, wasn’t on top of it. It had changed slightly to one side. Nobody would have ever noticed so I called the official and told him my ball moved. I did address it so I got a penalty shot and so it turned out, that one shot cost me $320,000.
Bonham: But that’s something you never regret?
Langer: Right. That’s just how it is. But that’s the way I was brought up—not to lie, not to cheat. That’s what the Bible says and that’s how I’ve tried to live my whole life. I’m trying to teach the same thing to my kids.
Bonham: How does integrity impact your responsibility as a husband and a father?
Langer: It’s impacts every impact of life in a sense. You always tell the truth. Sometimes it seems to hurt when you have to come out with the truth, but in the long run it’s always better to tell the truth instead of somebody finding out later that you covered it up or lied. That’s what I try to teach my kids. It’s always the case that when somebody else finds out later, you get punished for lying and you lose the trust of the people that you have lied to. If my son lies to me, I’ll never know if he’s telling the truth or not in the future.
Bonham: How does impact your emotional state and how you play on the golf course?
Langer: I don’t think there are any bad decisions when you tell the truth and integrity is involved. There’s only the truth, and if you tell the truth, that’s always the best way to go, even though it might hurt in the short term. In the long term, it’s always better. We make decisions every day and some are harder than others. Many of them are very difficult decisions. But I should never compromise my integrity with the decisions I make.
Bonham: How does living a life of integrity strengthen your platform and your influence?
Langer: Some people who don’t believe, they might mock us and laugh at us. Other people who have the same mind set, they look up to us and maybe look at us as role models. It just depends on who you’re involved with and who’s talking about you and how they see it.
Bernhard Langer is featured along with several other PGA golfers (including Ben Crane, Stewart Cink, Webb Simpson, and Rickie Fowler) in the book Life in the Fairway.
(Photos: Chris Condon via PGA Tour; Keith Allison; Bernhard Langer; Rob C. Croes)