Thirty years after making his Ryder Cup debut at Walton Heath Golf Club, Bernhard Langer returns to the historic Surrey venue this week to defend his Senior Open Championship title at the 25th edition of the US$2million event.
Langer and his European team-mates, who included Scotland’s Sandy Lyle, suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of an American team widely acknowledged as the strongest ever to compete in the biennial contest but the match sparked Langer’s long love affair with The Ryder Cup, which he would later win five times as a player and once, in 2004, as Captain, for which he was awarded an Honorary OBE.
The German will now make a sentimental return to Walton Heath Golf Club in Epsom, England, to defend the title he won at Carnoustie 12 months ago, when he held off America’s 2010 Ryder Cup Captain Corey Pavin, who is bidding to go one better this year.
Langer followed up his victory at The Senior Open Championship by triumphing at the US Senior Open to become the first player to win back-to-back Senior Majors since American Tom Watson, who arrives in Surrey fresh from another sterling performance at The Open Championship at Royal St George’s, where he provided one of the most memorable moments of the week when he aced the sixth hole on the second day.
Langer said: “Winning at Carnoustie was fantastic, as I love the course and it was set up perfectly. Then to fly straight to the west coast of America for the US Senior Open, with an eight-hour time change, and manage to win was quite a ride. It was a special two weeks in my career. Majors were elusive on the regular Tour, so to win two Senior Majors in a row was a great feeling.
“So it will be great to return to Walton Heath with two Major titles to defend in successive weeks. I was fortunate enough to play in a couple of European Opens at Walton Heath before making my first Ryder Cup appearance there in 1981, and I loved it straight away. It’s parkland, but with a links look and feel to it. I enjoy the heathland, the trees and the bunkering – all in all it’s a great inland course.
“I haven’t been back for quite a number of years, so I’m very excited to defend my Senior Open title there. My Ryder Cup debut was obviously a memorable part of my life, and I was pleased to win one and a half points from my four starts. Although we lost to one of the strongest American teams in history, it was still the start of my love affair with The Ryder Cup.”
Like Langer, Lyle would go on to gain Ryder Cup revenge on the Americans shortly after his Open Championship victory in 1985, and then again in 1987, one year before his memorable Masters Tournament victory at Augusta National.
The Scot has fond memories of his performance at Walton Heath Golf Club if not the result, as he was beaten 3&2 in a high quality encounter with Tom Kite, another American with aspirations of winning The Senior Open Championship this week.
Lyle said: “I was six under through ten holes – but we were all square! I shot seven or eight under par, and still ended up losing 3&2. In 15 holes, I think we’d had something ridiculous like 23 birdies and two eagles between us. So sometimes you just have to hold your hands up, because I couldn’t have done much more on the day. Hopefully I’ll fare a bit better at the Senior Open Championship this week.
“I’d absolutely love to win a Senior Major. It would mean an awful lot to me, although it probably wouldn’t get the same coverage as winning the Masters! But I’d still get a lot of satisfaction out of it – to win a Major 26 years after my first one would be quite an achievement.”
Lyle’s fellow Masters Tournament and Senior Tour champion Ian Woosnam of Wales is also bidding to win his first Senior Major to put the seal on an astonishing career.
Woosnam won 29 times on The European Tour and has added a further four titles since joining the Senior ranks, but his best performance to date in a Senior Major was a tied eighth finish at last year’s Senior Open Championship.
But having recently broken a two-year drought with his victory at the Berenberg Bank Masters in Cologne, Woosnam heads to Walton Heath Golf Club – where he recorded top five finishes in the 1987 and 1989 editions of the European Open – with his confidence fully restored.
He said: “Other than The Masters, The Senior Open Championship is the biggest tournament I’ll play in this year, so it goes without saying that I’d love to win it. It’s a Senior Major and at this stage of my life it’s probably the only realistic chance I have of winning another Major tournament, because I’m not likely to be slipping on the Green Jacket again any time soon. So I hope I can give it a good go.
“I’m feeling much better about my game now than I was before the win, that’s for sure. I didn’t play particularly well in Holland the week after my win, mainly because my driving was a bit wayward. So back in Jersey over the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to find a driver which suits me. But my irons have been very good and I’ve been putting well, so if I can sort my driving out I’ll fancy my chances.”
Other notable European Senior Tour contenders include the in-form Australian Peter Fowler, who climbed to second place behind Watson on the Order of Merit after his second victory of the season in Bad Ragaz recently; former Ryder Cup-winning Captain Sam Torrance of Scotland; and Englishman Carl Mason, who has a record 24 Senior Tour titles to his name but is yet to register a win in a Senior Major.
The closest Mason came to winning The Senior Open Championship was during his rookie season in 2003, when he lost in a play-off to Watson at Turnberry.