One shot behind to start the day, he ended it five back. His streak of eight consecutive rounds under par at Augusta National came to a screeching halt with a disastrous 77. But most of all, Rory McIlroy had gone without a birdie at Augusta National for the first since the second round of 2014.
His score on that miserable Friday two years ago? A 77.
Head-shaking stuff, yet as McIlroy came meandering onto the practice range to prepare for Sunday’s final round, who did he stop and chat to? England’s Andy Sullivan. Now, that was curious. Not that Sullivan was still using the practice range, mind you, because players who miss the cut quite often are still on site to use the practice facilities. No, the curious thing is that McIlroy, one day after going birdie-less, would stop and chat with a guy who played 36 holes without a birdie.
Honestly, what must that conversation have been like?
We’ll never know, but a short time later, McIlroy was settled into his practice routine when a commotion caused him to stop and turn. It was Bernhard Langer, strolling onto the practice tee, and slowly, solemnly, then passionately the fans stood and offered respectful applause — and for great reason.
Playing in his 33rd Masters, Langer represents what is coveted about this tournament, that former champions and legends of the game are forever embraced.
But at 58, so, too, does Langer reinforce what we already know, that golf is a timeless joy to be measured not by what’s on the scoreboard, but by what’s in the heart.
“We’re not playing tennis or soccer or football where it all comes down to speed and strength,” Langer said, shortly after finishing the third round of the 80th Masters at 1-under 215, just two off Jordan Spieth’s lead.
That’s right, a 58-year-old who last won the second of his two Masters 23 years ago, in the picture to try and chase down a 22-year-old who won the Masters last year.
What a beautiful, beautiful game.
There were no ends to the ways in which folks were able to emphasize the sort of age difference at work here. Langer, for instance, has a daughter who is older than Spieth, and Spieth’s father, Shawn, is younger than Langer. Or this: When Langer won his second green jacket in April of 1993, Spieth was not yet born.
Yet here they were, sharing centre stage at golf’s most precious tournament, and to the million-dollar question — “Do you think you can win?” — Langer merely smiled and politely said, “I believe I can. I can only play my game and see how that holds up.” Sound philosophy, which is no surprise given the stoic German. But sometimes the shame of our storylines is that real life gets in the way. With a bogey at the first hole, a double at the third and a bogey at the fifth, Langer fell seven off the lead and no longer were we thinking this was a brilliant way to commemorate the anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters.
That year, Nicklaus was 46 when he mounted a historic rally to win his sixth and final green jacket. Langer winning a third Masters at 58? Delectable stuff to ponder, but improbable to truly fathom.
By the time Langer had gotten just six holes into his final round, an assortment of names had leaped over him to try and chase down Spieth — gentlemen from Denmark (Soren Kjeldsen) and England (Danny Willett and Lee Westwood) and Australia (Jason Day) and even Thailand (Kiradech Aphibarnrat). Each and every one of them spoke to the flavour of global golf, but not one of them could stir the emotions like Langer.
The appearance of the two-time champion on the leaderboard sent everyone reaching for the media guide and thus were trips down memory lane ignited. Of that 1985 win when Langer closed with 68 to beat the magical Seve Ballesteros by two. Of that 1993 triumph when he seized the third-round lead and held it in his vice-like grip on Sunday.
He was of an era that gave us Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle — Masters champs each and every one — and just seeing Langer bridging into this generation of Spieth extended us the opportunity to remember what sort of performers have graced this Augusta National arena.
“They know the history of the tournament and of the game,” Langer said, when asked about the series of ovations he received. “You get goosebumps.”
That they didn’t last into Sunday made no difference. Langer had reminded us once again why we loved this game, why we embraced this tournament.