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Column: Bernhard Langer turns back the clock at Augusta

Bernhard Lange tips his cap to the crowd after putting out at No. 18 during the third round of the Masters on Saturday.

Bernhard Lange tips his cap to the crowd after putting out at No. 18 during the third round of the Masters on Saturday.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

He was playing with a partner less than half his age.

“He outdrove me by many, many yards,” said a smiling Bernhard Langer, 58.

“He just kept going along,” said an awestruck Jason Day, 28.

He was playing in front of four children who screamed in increasing disbelief.

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“My father has won here before, but never while I was alive,” said 16-year-old Jason Langer.

He was playing in front of fans who mostly ignored him in the manner that old folks in sports are often ignored, all the cheers for the muscular and top-ranked Day, few for the small guy with the graying hair stuffed under a visor, But then when Langer approached the 18th green at Augusta National late Saturday afternoon, and it became suddenly clear he was one round from making history, those fans leaped to their feet and gave him the day’s loudest standing ovation, everyone rocking to the oldies.

“You get goose bumps,” Langer said.

Those bumps might be weathered and wrinkled, but they could be stronger than ever Sunday if Langer continues his unlikely march toward golf immortality.

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On the 30th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus becoming the oldest winner in Masters history at age 46, Langer has a chance to beat that mark by a dozen years after shooting a two-under-par 70 to enter Sunday trailing leader Jordan Spieth by just two strokes. He would also become the oldest player to win any major tournament by 10 years, beating the record held by Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the PGA championship in 1968.

“Well, it would be one for the old guys,” Langer said, and would it ever.

Adorned in an old-school blue sweater and white shoes, Langer used his ancient wits to survive wind-blown conditions that turned most of the tour’s hipsters into slick wreckage, In doing so, he moved into a third-place tie with Hideki Matsuyama, creating a Sunday pairing that will just add to some already amazing numbers.

Langer is older than both his weekend partners combined. Langer is older than the two guys he is chasing — Spieth and Smylie Kaufman — combined.

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Langer, who is from Germany but lives in Boca Raton, Fla., has two Masters victories, the second one in 1993. He missed the cut in seven of the last nine Masters in which he has played. He’s considered a star on the senior Champions Tour, but he hasn’t won an event on the PGA or European tour in 14 years.

It was thus understandable that he looked around the Masters’ news conference room early Saturday evening like he had landed on Mars.

“Hello everybody!” he said brightly. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here.”

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Only in golf, right? Only in golf, it seems, can a 58-year-old not only seriously compete, but do so in its most prestigious event.

Can you imagine Darryl Strawberry coming off the bench to pinch-hit for the New York Mets in last year’s World Series? How about John Elway running down from the front office to guide the Denver Broncos in this year’s Super Bowl?

Some say golf is less of a competitive sport because age doesn’t matter. Langer argues that the age equation makes it an even more competitive sport.

“We’re not playing tennis or soccer or football where it all comes down to speed or strength,” Langer said. “Golf is a lot more about knowing yourself and technique, just thinking your way around the golf course, and then execution.”

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Langer, who began playing this tournament in 1982, estimates he has played about 200 competitive and practice rounds here. So while Day would routinely drive the ball 60 yards past him, Langer made up that yardage by playing just the right angles, continually striking perfect approach shots that kept him out of trouble, which was more than enough on this windy day of destruction.

His highlight was a chipped-in birdie on No. 14 that followed a long birdie putt by Day, leading to an ageless celebration between the two different eras.

“We gave each other a high-five and a fist pump and all that kind of stuff,” explained Langer, as only an aging dude could explain it.

If Langer remains in the chase today, it won’t be all cheers. There undoubtedly will be grumbling from serious golf fans that he is skirting the new rules against anchoring a putter against the body. He has long had an anchor putting stroke, he still holds his putter near his chest like he’s anchoring, and he comes pretty close to doing exactly that. But sorry, folks, this old golfer isn’t learning new tricks.

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“I probably have 20 new putters … with different grips …I tried this way, I tried that way,” he said. “But at this time ... I’m still the most comfortable [nearly anchoring] because I’ve done this for 18, 19 years now. Put so many hours into it, it’s difficult to change something that quick.”

This free-for-all Masters could do much worse than be anchored by the old guy, who did an appropriate old-guy thing following his round. You know how all the young stars leaving the course usually hand their golf balls to children? Langer handed his ball to a giddy middle-aged man.

To Bernhard Langer right now, everyone is young and everything is possible, even a musty old green jacket, the kind you see at an early-bird special, one that would fit him just perfect.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter: @billplaschke

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