How much have things changed in golf since 1982? That’s the question I asked myself as I unpacked a shoebox full of memorabilia from my caddie days on the PGA Tour. There in the collection of badges, yardage books and armbands were my tools of the trade from Pebble Beach, 1982, when I looped for Bernhard Langer.
It’s the same game today in many ways, but it has become more dominated by power. And while Langer is still a force, these days it’s on the PGA Champions Tour, where at the age of 61 he still threatens to win any week he tees it up.
Back then as a 24-year-old he was just coming into his own as a force in international golf, with seven wins on the European Tour, a place on the 1981 Ryder Cup team and winner of that season’s European Order of Merit. His official earnings for the year came out to just over $153,000 on the exchange rate – this compared to Tom Kite’s lead earning for the 1981 PGA Tour season of $375,699. Langer’s prize money was not enough to afford him (or anyone in those days) enough to take a caddie with him across the Atlantic.
The previous August I had arranged with Langer’s agent at IMG to caddie for him at the 1981 World Series of Golf. I had been spending my summers on Tour – in between sessions at graduate school – and was fluent in German.
Things worked out pretty well that inaugural week at Firestone Country Club for the two of us. Langer was actually momentarily tied for the lead Sunday after holing out for an eagle three from 147 yards out (with a 7-iron) on the par-5 second hole – this after having driven into a fairway bunker and pitching out. But he bogeyed four of the last six holes, finished tied for sixth place, and won $14,500. By the way, that same T-6 finish at Firestone in the 2018 WGC Bridgestone Invitational paid Patrick Cantlay $241,375. Yes, the money has changed. Total purse for that 1982 U.S. Open was $375,000. In 2019 it’s $12,000,000.
We got along decently enough at the 1981 World Series, and when I spent the winter of 1981-82 studying at the Free University of [West] Berlin I got away long enough from classes to spend a pleasant afternoon and evening with Langer and his family at their very modest home in Anhausen, West Germany. (Note another difference in those days: there was a West Germany, an East Germany and they were divided by an Iron Curtain).
I recall Langer proudly showing me the invitation he had just received to play in the 1982 Masters. School commitments prevented me from trying to work for him then, but when it later came to the U.S. Open he agreed in advance, and so I headed out to California in June 1982 on my first-ever trip to the West Coast.
I was 28 years old, broke, and had to caddie a two-day member-guest at Olympic Club in San Francisco to earn enough cash to pay for a cheap hotel in Monterey for the week.
On the basis of three articles in Score: Canada’s Golf Magazine and another assignment lined up, I talked my way into a press pass. The issuing official was a 25-year old redhead with a toothy smile named Steve Mona, then the USGA’s assistant manager for press relations (one of four at that office; there are now 11). He would go on to become CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and then head of the World Golf Foundation. Today we’re both grandfathers and still joke about those halcyon days.
Pebble Beach Golf Links back then was different, too. For one thing it was par-72, 6,825 yards. This year it’s playing as a par-71 at 7,075 yards, with the second hole converted from a 506-yard par 5 to a 516-yard par-4. The additional 250 yards of overall length represents only a 3.6 percent increase. That doesn’t come close to compensating for the dramatic gain in average driving distance on the PGA Tour. Back in 1982 an average drive traveled 257 yards; last year it was 293 yards. That’s a 14 percent jump.
It took a lot of skill to find the sweet spot on a 185cc wooden-headed driver back then, especially when played in the wind. The face of today’s 460 CC driver is much bigger and more forgiving. And the golf course was slower then, with irrigation practices spotty at best and the Poa annua greens running much slower than today’s speed. Precise data of the 1982 U.S. Open are lacking, but when the USGA went around the country in the summer of 1977 testing a prototype Stimpmeter, Pebble Beach clocked in at a speedy 7 foot I-inch.
Editor's Note: You can watch the full final round of the 1982 U.S. Open on the USGA's Roku Channel.
Too bad Langer couldn’t putt those greens that week. His ball striking was superb. But when he got to the greens there was trouble, as he was going through the second incarnation of an intermittent bout with the yips that was already legendary in Europe. We were paired the first two days with Ben Crenshaw and Bobby Clampett. At the time, Clampett was the hottest thing on Tour, with his arcane talk of Homer Kelley’s method, The Golfing Machine. Clampett would go on to finish T-3 at Pebble Beach.
Langer missed the weekend. Badly. He shot 80-79, eight strokes above the cut of 151. Most of it, as I recall, was because of his putting. His long putts were fine. But when he got to within about ten feet of the hole it seemed anything could happen. If you watched closely his stroke became a little explosion, and before you knew it the ball wound up somewhere, usually not in the cup, and you weren’t sure how it got there. Nor was Langer.
I will never forget that by the 13th green of round one, when Langer was putting from close to the hole both Crenshaw and Clampett shuffled to the side and turned their heads, unable to watch and knowing that if they did it would not serve them well.
To this day I am amazed and impressed that Langer subsequently bore down and addressed that part of his game. 37 years later he remains a competitive powerhouse.
With the weekend off at Pebble Beach, I arranged to spend two days walking the course with my idol, the great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind. We were right there together at the 17th hole, just short of the front-left greenside bunker, when Watson chipped in to pull a shot ahead of Jack Nicklaus.
Witnessing a moment like that is something we can only hope for when at a major. There’s no better stage than a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. A lot has changed in the game since 1982. The game is more athletic, more competitive, more financially rewarding. But what remain are the beauty and drama of that setting and the challenge of the moment.