PALM DESERT — One of the refreshing things about the men's pro golf tour is the recent infusion of foreign talent--Spain's Severiano Ballesteros, South Africa's Denis Watson, Australia's Greg Norman, Japan's Isao Aoki, to name a few--into the mainstream of American tournaments. Now comes Bernhard Langer of West Germany.
Langer, 26, a slender curly-haired blond, is Europe's No. 1 player. He won four international tournaments last year--the French, Dutch, Irish and Spanish Opens--and led the European Tour's Order of Merit (official money-winnings) for the second time. Ballesteros was fifth. Langer, the first native-born German to win a major tournament of any kind, also led the Order in 1981.
Today, in the Bob Hope Classic, Langer will make his first appearance on the West Coast as he opens a campaign to test his finely tuned game against the best of the PGA's touring professionals. He will be at Bermuda Dunes as an unwieldy field of 128 pros, with three amateur partners each, starts its round-robin tour of the Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Tamarisk and Indian Wells courses.
One of Langer's amateur partners will be Johnny Bench, former catcher with the Cincinnati Reds.
The 26th Hope has a strong cast to challenge Langer, headed by defending champion John Mahaffey, No. 2 money-winner Mark O'Meara and former winners Jack Nicklaus, Craig Stadler, Johnny Miller, Bruce Lietzke and Arnold Palmer.
If history is an indicator, Sunday's final round at Indian Wells should be a tense one. The last three Hope tournaments have ended in ties after 90 holes and required sudden-death playoffs to determine a winner. Ed Fiori beat Tom Kite in a 1982 playoff, Keith Fergus beat Rex Caldwell in 1983, and last year Mahaffey had to go two extra holes to beat Jim Simons.
Langer will be trying to become only the second foreign champion in the Hope's 26-year history. Bruce Devlin of Australia won in 1970.
The 5-foot 9-inch, 155-pound German qualified for the PGA tour by winning $82,465 during a brief excursion to the U. S. last spring when he played in eight tournaments. His best finish was third in Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill tournament at Orlando, Fla.
After that, he returned to Europe, where he won nearly $200,000 and led the tour with a stroke average of 69.42.
By contrast, the U.S. scoring leader was Calvin Peete with 70.56. In his eight American events, Langer averaged 70.97.
Although this will be his first tournament here, the German is no stranger to television viewers.
In the 1981 World Series of Golf at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, Langer made his U.S. debut and shared the lead at one time during a hectic final nine holes.
"It was a good feeling, being tied for the lead, because I knew then that I could play over here," he said. "Until you do it, you never can be certain."
He finished sixth as Bill Rogers edged Tom Kite at the finish.
Earlier in 1981, in the British Open at Royal St. Georges, Langer alone had challenged Rogers down the stretch to finish second to the slender Texan.
Unlike most modern-day American pros, who learn the game in junior programs, Langer learned his the old-fashioned way, as a caddy. He began lugging bags at age 9 at the Augsburg Country Club in his hometown of Anhausen, West Germany.
When he decided he wanted to learn to play, the members wouldn't let him on the course.
"They made me play up and down the practice range until I reached a certain standard and then they let me on the course," he recalled with a laugh.
In 1972, after completing his formal schooling at 15, Langer left home and went to Munich to work as an apprentice to Heinz Fehring. It turned out to be the ideal place for an aspiring player.
"We only had a few hundred members and most of them played on the weekends," he said. "The course was never busy during the week, so I had plenty of time to practice and play."
Three years later, he ventured onto the European tour. In his first year, at 18, he ranked 90th. He spent the next year in West Germany's compulsory military service but managed to keep his game sharp anyway, since he was assigned to the German Army's special sports unit.
It wasn't until 1979, however, that Langer broke into the winner's circle. When he did, it was impressive. In the World Under-25 championship, at Nimes in southern France, Langer won by a record 17 strokes.
That same year he proved that he was more than merely an under-25 player when he finished second to Hale Irwin in the World Cup at Athens. The next year he won three tournaments and again finished second in the World Cup, this time to Scotland's Sandy Lyle in Bogota, Colombia.
Germany, where golf rates on the sporting scale about where cycling does in this country, began to take notice of its wunderkind when he fought off former British and U.S. Open champion Tony Jacklin for the 1981 German Open title at Hamburg. It was the first win by a native-born player in the German Open's 70-year history.
He successfully defended that title in 1982, winning a playoff with Bill Longmuir. Langer has also won two German PGAs, open to German professionals only, and is a five-time member of the German World Cup team.
Langer is not a spectacular player in the mold of Ballesteros, but he is steady in the manner of Jack Nicklaus. In 1981, he was out of the top 10 only once in 17 tournaments, and last year in his eight U.S. tournaments had a third at Bay Hill, a fifth at Hawaii, and a sixth in the USF&G tournament at New Orleans. He never missed a cut.
A word of warning to Trivial Pursuit players and bar bettors: Don't get caught if someone says Langer has never won a Bob Hope Classic--even though you know he has never before played here in the California desert.
In 1981, he won the Bob Hope British Classic.