Grand Blanc — There was a scene late Saturday at Warwick Hills Country Club that made someone stop. And watch. For a very long time.
It was not unusual by golf or Tour standards. Bernhard Langer stood on the edge of the practice green putting three balls at different holes from different angles.
No drama there, except that for an hour he was the only player on that green. Which tells you Langer had work to do of a specific and personal nature.
He had just shot 67 to leave him three shots behind the leaders, Jeff Maggert, Tom Lehman, and Scott McCarron, swinging into the final round of the Ally Challenge, a PGA Tour Champions stop for 50-and-older Tour stars who have shown up in nice numbers this week as celebrity golf returned to the old Buick Open’s home course.
Now it was pushing 5 p.m. and finally beginning to cool a tad when afternoon temperatures had been in the 80s with humidity straight from your dry cleaners.
Langer stood on the green’s edge, with two hands spread far apart on that long putter he continues to use by way of a technicality.
Long putters, you might recall, were all the rage for a while. They later were banned on Tour play because they were “anchored” against a player’s chest. Langer, who is 61 and still skinny as an ironing board, decided he would bypass the legalese by extending his putter a few inches from his body.
This has enabled him to placate the Tour’s rules gendarmes as he has continued to play golf, quite effectively.
He has won $1.5 million this year alone on the seniors’ schedule. He has done it by way of numbers such as these:
Second on the Champions Tour in total driving. Sixth in hitting greens in regulation.
Langer also is third in scrambling around greens, which suggests, perhaps, pitching and chipping is his greater triumph. That’s because he is 64th on the Tour in putts per round: 29.50.
And that led to Saturday’s overtime shift.
He poked at three balls lined up horizontally. Three balls. Three putts. All from about 10 feet.
Many dropped into the cup. Too many slid to the right.
Langer, who was Saturday’s best-dressed golfer, donning a hot-orange Bogner shirt, khaki slacks, and his customary white visor, shook his head at the pushed putts.
He called his caddie away from a plate of food the caddie had grabbed post-round and was picking at on the green. Langer suggested he stand close, inspecting his putting stroke.
The word “rotation” was heard. Langer wasn’t happy with how a slight right-to-left move with his stroke wasn’t sticking to the flight plan. He had shot 70 on Friday with 32 putts. He had 27 Saturday as part of his 67.
A half-hour later, after he had moved from 10-footers to 30-footers, he dropped in a shorter, downhill roller for a flourish. It was then he exited the green and hopped onto a golf cart for his getaway.
Until, anyway, a guy with a question showed up.
Does this game, particularly this competitive surgery known as putting, become more exasperating as a player who has known all of golf’s trap doors deals with it later in life?
Langer is a graceful gent, always has been, and didn’t seem to mind the question.
“On and off for 50 years,” he said, smiling.
Langer twice has won the Masters. This speaks to the golf spectrum’s other, happier side, which Langer also has known, because putting Augusta National’s greens is a bit like walking a tightrope across the Straits of Mackinac.
Langer has been, for decades, not only one of the game’s skilled craftsmen, but he has putted those Augusta greens, and so many others, with a safe-cracker's touch.
And yet there have been long interludes where he hasn’t been comfortable. Where the response was to change equipment, somewhat radically, with that long-shafted putter he decided was essential.
Saturday it helped him to a 67 that keeps him in the scrum with McCarron, Lehman, and Maggert — and with the guys who along with Langer are no further than three shots behind: Mark O’Meara, Tom Byrum, Paul Broadhurst, Esteban Toledo, David McKenzie, Brandt Jobe, Kenny Perry, Joey Sindelar, David Toms, and Vijay Singh.
It wouldn’t bother one guy, not for a moment, if Langer pulls it off. Perhaps it’s because that same guy stood 70 feet or so from Langer on a Sunday at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1991, on the last shot of what remains the most sublime Ryder Cup duel of all time.
Langer needed a six-footer for Europe to tie the Matches and keep the Ryder Cup, which it had won in 1989.
It barely missed — a sliver right.
There were two emotions that amazing Sunday evening held exclusively for Langer. One was sourced in sympathy for a man who had been holding the golf world in his hands during a moment of breathless drama but who couldn’t deliver for Europe a colossal crescendo.
The other emotion was, and remains, deep admiration. Langer that gray evening on a South Carolina shoreline in what might have been the most pressure some of us ever have seen at work in a sporting event, didn’t fail or choke on that putt. He missed. By a few dimples.
But it can be such a satanic part of the game, getting those putts to drop, feeling as if you rather than what should be an exercise in execution is in control.
That also was why it was engrossing late Saturday, standing near that green, watching a man of extraordinary skill and achievement confront a game that has, for all golfers, it seems, an immense capacity to be cruel.