Augusta, Ga. — Bernhard Langer birdied three prevailing misconceptions as well as the key holes on his way to winning the 49th Masters golf tournament: that he couldn't putt, couldn't smile, and couldn't speak English. The 27-year-old West German with the cosmonaut appearance beat the best leader board in recent memory to win his first US title in his first major championship. In contention the last day were no less than Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros (with whom Langer shared a tense European pairing), Lee Trevino, and assorted other household names.
You don't shoot a four-under-par 68 on the final afternoon at Augusta National for a 282 total if you can't putt.
In interviews since his breakthrough victory, Langer has displayed both a growing grasp of the language and a flashing, luminous smile. His wife, Vikki, is a Southern girl who helps him with his English, and the two are making their US home in the Boca Raton area of Florida as Langer plays his full schedule on the PGA Tour.
His Nordic good looks, mindful of Barry Manilow, and bright clothing made by a Euopean ski wear company, are as compelling as his iron shots, which are as crisply struck as any in golf. Augusta is a second shot course . . . and Langer's second shots were awesome.
If he surprised the American public by winning the vaunted Masters, he didn't surprise world class players like Watson.
``He has great mental and physical strength,'' says the six-time PGA Player of the Year. ``He's nearly won the British Open twice, including last summer when he tied for second. He'll be a major factor for many years.''
Langer, who pronounces his name ``Longer,'' was the leading player in Europe last year, capturing four national opens. He played eight US events and made money in all eight, with three top-10 showings.
His Masters mastery earned him a 10-year qualifying exemption to all PGA tournaments and a lifetime exemption to the Masters, as well as a fast $126,000.
The only question with Langer was his putting. From an early age he would stab at the ball with unpleasant results. He was known to make two, three, and even four putts from as close to the hole as two feet. A typical score of 72 included as many putts as all other shots put together.
``I had tried different putters and strokes and nothing helped,'' he says. ``I couldn't understand why the rest of my short game was so good when it, like putting, required touch and finesse. I knew I had it inside me to putt well. I was too stiff and uptight. I had too much tension in my arms. At last I was able to help myself.''
A teaching professional who has worked with Langer speculates that it also helps for him to play on well-conditioned American greens after growing up on shaggy German approximations. In his first Masters in 1981, he had 11 three-putt greens and missed the cut; this year he had one.
Golf is not popular in Germany, where there is but one public course. Langer, the first good German pro, was introduced to the game by his older brother, with whom he caddied. He first heard of the Masters when he was 15.
``I hope kids at home see the Masters on television and take up this great game,'' he says now. ``It was shown on tape.''
His friends and relatives in Germany belatedly saw Langer play the storied back nine at Augusta National in 33 strokes. He finished two ahead of Curtis Strange, who was trying to make history by coming back from an opening round 80, former champ Raymond Floyd, and reigning British Open king Seve Ballesteros.
Birdies on the two par-5 water holes, the 13th and 15th, were the difference. Strange, with the best chance to win, hit in the aqua on both and bogeyed them. The powerful Langer reached both greens with 5-iron second shots.
His pairing with Ballesteros, who has won the Masters twice, was watched closely by foreign correspondents who told of cool feelings between the two. Ballesteros does not like the slow play of Langer. Langer, in turn, thinks Ballesteros is cold and intimidating to be paired with on the course. In addition, Langer supplanted Seve as the No. 1 player in Europe last year.
``I'd learned a lesson from him,'' Langer says. ``I'd never played with anybody who concentrates so well. He cares about nothing or no one else out there. He's not even nice to his caddie and his caddie is his brother.''
Langer's concentration no longer can be seriously faulted. Neither can his putting, his smile, or his English.