Open 2015: Old Master Bernhard Langer keeps the faith

CNN  — 

The Bernhard Langer story begins 12 years before his birth.

His father, Erwin, had been a motorcycle courier in the German Army in the Second World War. At the end of the conflict, he was detained by Russian troops and herded onto a train destined for a prisoner of war camp.

In the dead of night, Langer Sr. made a break for it, leaping from the train to what he hoped would be his freedom.

“The Russian troops were shooting at him, but it was dark so they missed him,” says his son. “Had one hit him, there wouldn’t have been a Bernhard Langer for sure.”

Langer Jr. could be forgiven for having an aversion to military life. After being conscripted to the Air Force at the age of 19, with his golfing career beginning to take off, he suffered a serious back injury that threatened his chances of playing the game again.

“I hurt my back really seriously with a stress fracture and was in hospital for six weeks,” he recalls. “It was a tough time, and I remember thinking I probably wasn’t going to play golf again.

“But I’m very fortunate. I’m 58 in August, and I’ve played nearly 40 years of golf since then without having surgery.”

On Thursday, Langer will tee off at The British Open at St. Andrews for what he admits could be the last time.

That he made it to the very top of his sport – he has won two Masters Green Jackets and was a two-time runner-up at the British Open – is something of a surprise.

When he was growing up, neither his father – who went on to become a bricklayer after the war – nor his mother Wally, a waitress and a keen gardener, played golf or had any interest in the game.

The Langers were a relatively poor family, and getting involved with golf was an idea his brother had to make a little cash.

“When my brother was 13 or 14, he rode his bicycle up to the local golf course five miles away to earn money as a caddy,” Langer recalls. “I remember I was nine and being amazed when he came home with a few Deutschmarks.

“So I was like: ‘I want to do that’ – a chance to earn money for sweets or treats, which we never had. So first of all, I loved golf for the money it gave me but it didn’t take me long to get a love of the game.”

There were just four clubs between the two siblings: a two-wood, a three-iron, a seven-iron and a putter that was crooked.

Despite the paltry equipment, Langer’s passion for the game became so great that he deliberately flunked both his English and maths exams at high school in order to ensure he returned to his local school, where there was more chance to play.

“At the high school, I was there until five or six and then had three hours of homework so there was no time for golf,” he explains. “At the local school, I could play every afternoon. I try not to tell that story too often as I don’t want to discourage young people from studying!”

But it was a move that paid off. His grasp of the game led to him becoming a trailblazer, the first German of any note to achieve anything on the European and PGA Tours and an inspiration for the likes of former world No.1 Martin Kaymer to follow.

Langer, speaking as an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz, one of the British Open’s patrons, was part of a European golfing elite that included Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, and achieved his first Masters victory in 1985.

Having met his wife Vikki not long before that – the couple are still together today, and have four children – he left Augusta confused by a nagging empty feeling in the wake of what should have been the high point of his life.

That all changed when he was taken to a Bible meeting by fellow golfer Bobby Clampett three days later.

There, golfing minister Larry Moody showed him a verse from the Bible. In John 3.3, it says: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Casting his mind back to the encounter 30 years ago, Langer says: “I’d gone to church for 27 years or something, but this was different – I liked it more the way it was explained.

“It quickly became clear what was missing in my life. I didn’t have a personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ.

“Once I made the decision, it became a huge part of my life: how I treat people, how I look at the world, how I look at politics. It affected everything.

“We’re so involved with the here and now we have for 70, 80 or 90 years when it’s all about the eternal ranks. Our life is just a fleeting moment compared to eternity.”

He is not ashamed to admit there have been times when his faith has been tested.

On the golf course, the most high-profile was the straightforward missed putt that cost Europe the chance to win the 1991 Ryder Cup.

It is something Langer is still asked about nearly a quarter of a century on, and he says: “There are times in life where are you either drawn closer to God or else your faith gets weakened. That was one of those times.

“It would be easy to say: ‘Why did God not help me make that putt?’ but life as a Christian is not always easy.”

Somewhat befittingly for a religious man, he reached another peak by winning a second Masters in 1993 – on Easter Sunday.

“Easter is what sets Christians apart,” he continues. “Jesus was risen and no one else has risen from the dead. It was also particularly sweet because of something I said eight years before.

“When I won my first Masters, I said: ‘Jesus Christ, I couldn’t believe I’m four shots behind Curtis Strange’ on live TV. I got a lot of people writing in, saying: ‘How dare you take Jesus’ name in vain?’ This was a chance to make amends and give him glory.”

Langer will make a rare return to the men’s Tour – he predominantly plays on the Champions Tour – at this week’s Open. The heroics of those past Masters are not to be expected, with Langer just happy to have the chance to play at St Andrew’s, the home of golf, once more.

With it, waves of nostalgia have washed over him.

“It will be hard to play that last round when it happens,” he says. “It could be this year, I don’t know. I just have to enjoy it.”