First it rained. Then it rained birdies, most enjoyably so.
Thursday’s deluge from Hurricane Michael softened the greens just enough while Prestonwood Country Club drains well enough to keep the fairways firm, leaving the course relatively defenseless, especially when Bernhard Langer had an iron in hand.
Records fell from start to finish, and not merely Langer’s 22-under-par 194, the lowest winning score in the 18-year history of the SAS Championship, by a tournament record-tying six strokes. He wasn’t alone.
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Three players shot tournament-record 62s on Friday and Langer and Gene Sauers followed theirs up with 67s Saturday to set a new 36-hole SAS record at 15-under par. Sunday, Scott Parel came charging from behind with a 7-under 65 and birdies on six of the last eight holes but still couldn’t make a dent on the Langer lead thanks to the German’s seemingly endless parade of short birdie putts.
And yet the sky did not fall when the birdies piled up. Even by PGA Tour Champions standards, this course was there for the taking, but there was no self-important hand-wringing over the defense of par from blue-blazered functionaries, no whispered snickering about the course’s lack of difficulty like you might get from purists during one of those off-brand weeks all the big names skip on the PGA Tour.
There were just birdies – Langer alone had 23 of them in 54 holes – and the raw pleasure of watching some of the game’s greats batter par like they’re still in the prime of their careers, a thoroughly pleasurable spectacle.
It was all fine, even on a day that started chilly and blustery before the sun finally emerged. Golf is supposed to be fun. Watching golf is supposed to be fun. There was a period of time in the 1980s when every fancy new course was more difficult than the last, longer and more bunkered and with more water in play, a trend that probably played a quiet role in the eventual end of the golf boom. Not everything has to be the U.S. Open, and this certainly wasn’t, and that’s OK.
Langer and Sauers extended their two-man match race into a third day, dueling through the front nine until Langer birdied the 10th and Sauers doubled, giving Langer a six-shot lead and making the final eight holes a coronation of the ageless in the late-arriving sunshine as Langer ambled to a record fourth title at age 60 or older.
He was a relatively sprightly 55 when he won here in 2012, a victory that helped launch an era of senior dominance for Langer – 38 wins over 12 years and four championships. His performance this weekend put him in line for a fifth, vaulting him past Scott McCarron and into the money lead heading into the tour’s playoff stretch.
On Thursday, just as the torrential rain started falling, Langer predicted that the damp conditions would lead to longer approach shots and higher scores. He was as wrong as he was dominant. No one profited more from the circumstances.
And for those who didn’t play well despite the conditions, the Sunday morning tee times for the back of the pack were early enough to dig into the lobster-and-prime-rib lunch at the clubhouse before hitting the road. A lose-win, as it were.
Langer put on a show, conquering the course and the field and advancing age, all at once – one of the greats doing the stuff of greatness. Whether he was 2-over or 20-under, what was the difference?