PITTSBURGH — Bernhard Langer gave away a four-shot lead in the final round of Senior Players Championship and wondered where his game had gone.
“It was like, ‘This is not Bernhard Langer,’ ” he said, laughing. “Usually I’m a bit more steady.”
No matter. The two-time Masters champion regained his composure — and more importantly his putting stroke — to edge Jeff Sluman on the second hole of a playoff for his third victory of the year and third major title on the Champions Tour.
Langer made a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th to tie Sluman at 15 under, then birdied the par-5 18th on the second hole of sudden death after a brilliant pitch from the rough to 5 feet. The 56-year-old German thrust his arms skyward in triumph after one of the more trying of his 21 career victories on the 50-and-over circuit.
“It comes in all shades I guess,” Langer said after an even-par 70.
Sluman had a bogey-free 65 to match Langer’s four-round total of 15-under 265, but narrowly missed a birdie putt on the first playoff hole that would have won it. The 1988 PGA champion covered his face in his hands after the ball stayed out.
“I’m not going to hit a better putt than that,” Sluman said. “It just didn’t go in.”
It never seems to for Sluman, at least in playoffs. The 56-year-old American is 1-9 in his professional career when pushed to extra holes.
“If I’m in another playoff, bet on the other guy,” Sluman said.
Russ Cochran, who trailed by seven shots early in the final round, had a 67 to finish third at 14- under. Defending champion Kenny Perry tied Langer for the lead heading into the back nine, but faded badly over the closing holes. Perry’s 69 left him two shots out of the playoff.
“I wanted to shoot somewhere 65 or better, didn’t happen,” Perry said.
Langer nearly missed out on the playoff himself. He fought a balky putter much of the day before dropping one from across the green on 17, a putt Perry called “impossible.” The typically reserved Langer hardly seemed to believe it, pumping his fist after the ball dropped into the cup.
Sluman, finishing out his round one group ahead, heard the roar and knew the unlikely lead he’d somehow forged was gone.
“They said Bernhard made a long one,” Sluman said. “But you expect that from him.”
When Sluman couldn’t take advantage of an indifferent approach and putt by Langer on the first playoff hole, Langer didn’t let the reprieve go to waste. He birdied the 18th on his third try to earn his first major title on the 50-and-over circuit since the 2010 Senior British Open.
It was also a decidedly different outcome than Langer’s previous playoff in a major. He let a two-shot lead on the 18th hole at last year’s Senior British Open slip away before losing to Mark Wiebe on the fifth extra hole at Royal Birkdale. Langer called the loss “one that I will not forget.”
He likely won’t forget his triumph at Fox Chapel either, not after an eventual day when an expected shootout with Perry turned into something else entirely.
The meticulous play that kept Langer atop the leaderboard for the better part of 54 holes abandoned him early in the round, opening the door for the rest of the field. Langer missed a short par putt at the par-4 fourth, and he turned the 295-yard par-4 seventh into an adventure when his pitch sailed over the green and his 5-foot comebacker for par popped off the back edge of the cup.
Perry, who promised to go into “attack mode” to chase down his good friend, had little trouble tracking Langer down. He pulled even with a birdie at the seventh and did it again at the ninth, when he bounced back from a bogey at the eighth by holing out from a greenside bunker for birdie.
A back-nine duel, however, never materialized. Both players started spraying shots — including an ugly double bogey for Langer at the par-4 12th — while Sluman quietly went about his business up ahead.
Sluman slowly reeled in the front-runners, taking the lead with a birdie on the par-4 14th and adding another at the par-4 16th while Perry and Langer faltered behind him.
The streaky Perry, trying to join Arnold Palmer as the only players to win consecutive Senior Players titles, cooled as the pressure mounted. He shot 3-over 38 on the back, including consecutive bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13 as the crisp iron game that vaulted him into contention vanished.