German-born Bernhard Langer was playing his first tournament in the United States when he arrived at Firestone Country Club in 1981.

Although he’s competed in Akron many times, his favorite story comes from his debut in what was then the PGA Tour’s World Series of Golf.

“[Thursday] was actually my birthday and somehow it got into the papers the night before,” said Langer, who turned 24 that day. “I hit my tee shot on No. 1 and people started singing, 'Happy Birthday to You.'

“I had never experienced that anywhere else. I thought, ‘Well, they’re very friendly people here and this is pretty special.’ ”

After finishing second in the British Open a month earlier, Langer carded a 68 on his birthday and tied for sixth in that World Series.

Saying the famed South Course “will always have a special memory in my heart” because it was his first tournament in the U.S., Langer returns to Firestone for the $2.8 million Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, which opens Thursday.

Growing up in Anhausen, Germany, Langer said he’d never seen Firestone on television. He said in those days, golf fans in Europe were lucky to catch a half hour of the Masters or British Open.

He went on to win the Masters Tournament in 1985 and 1993, two of his three PGA Tour victories. Now a World Golf Hall of Famer, Langer has posted 39 victories on the PGA Tour Champions, one this year.

Langer, 61, knows his success later in his career inspires others.

“I hear comments like, ‘You haven’t changed a bit the last 20 years,’” he said. “I wish that were true. Or things like, ‘Keep going, do it for the old guys.’ ”

Langer holds Champions Tour records for the most Charles Schwab Cup wins (five) and senior major victories (10) and leads the all-time money list with $27.6 million, boosting him to $38.3 million including the PGA Tour. (The Charles Schwab Cup is the equivalent of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup.)

But six weeks away from his 62nd birthday, Langer said the success doesn’t come easily.

“Things are starting to hurt and ache more every year, it seems,” he said.

He said he’s been fortunate to avoid major injuries, save for thumb surgery in 2011 that kept him out for most of the season. His technique has also improved in the last 15 years. He’s cut back on his schedule and practice time so he can compete at the highest level.

“Some people say, ‘Well, I’ve done it now for 30 years, 40 years,’ and they don’t give it their full attention,” Langer said. “You’re going to get weaker and you’re going to lose flexibility. But technically ... I can still get the club in better positions, have a better understanding on how to play the game, what I’m capable of, what’s good for me in my off time and maybe even become better in the short game and how to attack a golf course.”

Stricker’s fave

Steve Stricker went back to one of his old haunts, Baker’s Café 33, on Tuesday night after hearing that the iconic Canton restaurant had reopened after a 2016 fire.

“That seems to be mainstay every time we come here,” said Stricker, who was joined by friends, his brother-in-law and Scott Verplank. “The food was better than ever.”

Couples on Kawhi

Fred Couples lives in Newport Beach, California, and was monitoring where Kawhi Leonard would play, just like fans around the world. But Couples said when he awoke to the news that the two-time NBA champion had chosen the Los Angeles Clippers, “I had to click it back to look again.”

Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 title, convinced Paul George to ask the Oklahoma City Thunder for a trade to join him.

“All it took was a phone call and then all of a sudden their team is set,” Couples said. “I would love to have Paul George, but Paul George is signed with Oklahoma and now their team’s blowing up. It’s very weird.”

Couples knows Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, and said he will be attending a few games, although he won’t be going to the Staples Center for Clippers-Lakers if the two square off on Christmas Day.

“With [games] every two hours, that will be a stay-at-home,” Couples said. “The whole LA Laker-LA Clipper thing is going to be some [interesting] few years here.”

Couples also loves baseball, but did not attend Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cleveland. He did watch the Home Run Derby and was amazed that New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso won $1 million, nearly doubling his $555,000 salary this season. The runner-up, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., also carries that salary, but received a $3.9 million signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays when he was 16.

“A million bucks, I don’t even know what they make, but I know Vlad probably had a huge signing bonus. [Alonso] is a rookie and no one’s ever heard of him,” Couples said.

“Holy shoot, the place was rockin.’”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.