How Langer comes to grips with yips

JOHN EISENBERG

April 11, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The miracle is that Bernhard Langer is still a respectable member of society, that he has not committed some heinous crime or been sent to some padded room or escaped to some remote island to live out his days muttering to himself.

The miracle is that he is still a functioning, successful golfer at age 35, a popular figure in his homeland and suddenly in possession of a four-stroke lead after three rounds of the 57th Masters. That's more than just miraculous. That's goofy.

Sixteen years ago, Langer was struck by terrible misfortune. As a lad in West Germany, he came to the realization that golf was his life's calling. Fine. Good. No problem. But soon thereafter, when it was too late to turn back, he made a terrible discovery. He couldn't putt.

That tends to get in the way of a career in golf, of course. It's the diva with chronic hoarseness. The accountant who can't add. A physical impossibility, or very nearly. The golfer who can't putt. What else is there to say except the obvious: Poor guy.

Langer's father was a bricklayer. Make up your own joke.

Short putts were Langer's particular nightmare. It's a dreaded disease of the game, known as the yips. Short putts left him pale and trembling. Other golfers saw them as a chance to save a stroke. Langer saw them as a chance to scream at the top of his lungs, "Mommmm-mmy!"

His prowess at the rest of the game was so complete that he overcame his dysfunction and built a substantive career. The rest of his game was magnificent. He was accurate off the tee, unerring with his irons, not the longest hitter, but as consistent as a metronome. Even he could make the tap-ins he often left himself.

Forever fighting his demon, changing grips and wrestling with his putter, he was a winner in Europe by 22, then stunned the golf world by winning the Masters at 27, missing nary a putt. It was in one of those interludes when he had found a temporary cure -- a new grip or stroke or mind-set -- and the yips were in remission.

They're never fully in remission, of course. After a superb, windblown 69 yesterday, he said he had conquered them three times, citing 1979, 1982 and 1988, but in the next breath he said: "I have good days and bad days. I'm not the best putter in the world, but I'm certainly not the worst, or I wouldn't be in [the lead.]"

Through 16 years of good and bad, he has been a portrait of a tortured golfer. It's fair to say that many pros faced with the same problem would be selling insurance by now. Those chasing Langer today should be forewarned: He is nothing if not tough.

He hit a low point in 1988, when he hurt his back in Australia, his swing fell apart and his putting followed. "My putting was going so badly that I had to try something," he said.

He began grabbing the putter with his left hand at the bottom of the grip, taking his right hand and grabbing both the grip and his left wrist at the same time. It looked pretty bizarre, as though he were playing "Twister" or handcuffing himself or shooting a rifle into the ground. But it felt comfortable, and he started using it.

He is still using it five years later, for better or for worse, even after clanking a much-publicized six-footer that would have won the Ryder Cup last September.

Do his fellow golfers make fun of his complicated grip?

"Not to my face," he said, smiling. "They wouldn't have the guts to do that. And anyway now I see a couple of other guys out here using it."

Still, when this week began there was little reason to pick Langer to win. Since winning the Masters in 1985, he has broken 70 at Augusta in only six of 28 rounds, and not once broken par on Sunday. It is a putter's tournament, decided on slick greens too tough even for the best putters. Yippers normally need not apply.

But it's a weird year here. The leader board is loaded with obscure names. Couples and Norman and Floyd aren't firing. And Langer is putting as well as anyone. His cross-handed stroke served him particularly well yesterday, when he made putts of 12 and 15 feet and even a couple of those dadblasted five-footers, part of a round he said he would "rank in my top five."

The tournament is his to lose at this point, and considering the consistency of the rest of his game, it's his to lose on the greens.

He does appear to have his yips under control, but as he can testify better than any other golfer in cleats, they can strike any time. He can only cross his hands, not just his fingers, and hope.

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