Martin Kaymer had one of those days on Thursday at The Players Championship. He strolled around the TPC Sawgrass in a course record-tying 63 on what was supposed to be a difficult day on a tricky golf course. He shares the record with Fred Couples (1992), Greg Norman (1994) and Roberto Castro (2013). And starting on the back, he also shot a record 29 on his back nine.
He has a two-shot lead over Russell Henley who shot 7-under with a double bogey. Right behind Henley is Sang-Moon Bae at 6-under and eight guys at 5 including Lee Westwood, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Sergio.
So where did this great performance come from? What made it possible? Turns out it was counterintuitive to everything we think we know about great golf:
“Well, I stopped thinking. (Laughter.) That’s pretty much the bottom line. I thought a lot the last two years about swing changes, about this and this, that every shot I made I reflect on it, what I did wrong, what I did right, and then I think a couple weeks before the Masters I worked a little with my coach. He came to Phoenix, and then I went to Germany the week before, and we had a good session.”
“And then it just clicked a little bit that I thought, okay, I know I can hit pretty much every shot when I needed to hit it. If it’s a draw, if it’s a fade, low or high, I know that I can do it. It’s just a matter of getting the confidence on the golf course and then letting it happen and really doing it.”
“You can play the safe way. You can play a round of golf in a very safe way and make your putts. Maybe you pick up a birdie here or there, but sometimes you need to try the impossible to make it — that you know it’s possible. Does that make sense? You have to hit very special golf shots sometimes where you know you can hit them, and then you gain a lot of confidence from that.”
“I just trust myself a lot more, and I stopped my thinking. I think the bottom line is I think less.”
The thing about golf learning is that there is a percolation process; the old feelings need to be sublimated by the new and presumably better ones. And it’s different for everyone. It is the process of your body coming to know the whole of it, not just the pieces you learned to get there:
“Well, the first year I wasted a little bit I would say because I was distracted by too much what was going on off the golf course, with being No.1 in the world and all those things. I think I didn’t have enough energy to really focus on the main thing because I was doing a lot of other things, which was okay afterwards because then it was just part of the whole process, I think.”
“And then the last 12, 18 months, or let’s say after the first 12 months, the second year, I was working very, very hard to get back [to where he was] and then it took me maybe another six to eight months after this to stop thinking, stop trying to play perfect golf, and I think that’s the key in the end because it’s the reason why everybody is on the PGA Tour out here.”
“At one stage we played really good golf. We trusted ourselves. We almost didn’t need a caddie, we didn’t need a coach. It was all within ourselves. We had it all. We just need to find a way to get it out and let it happen, and that is what I noticed the last four or five weeks, that those things come out.”
“I trust myself a lot and I hit a lot of good golf shots. Obviously you screw up here and there once in a while, but it’s okay. You can’t hit perfect shots all the time. It’s about acceptance and trusting, and it’s really nice to play golf like this.”
So notwithstanding a bad shot, you accept it in complete objectivity. It’s what happened and you can’t change it. And notwithstanding the bad shot, you trust yourself on the next one.
And Kaymer realized that this was how he played when he was coming up, but that his awareness would be dimmed by the swing-change process:
“No, I didn’t think much. I just played. I really loved, and I still love the game. I think it’s only distracting if you think too much and if you try to play perfect golf. But when you [make a] change, you have to think automatically. You need to reflect and you want to improve, you want to get to the goal a lot earlier, and then sometimes you can get caught up in the thinking process.”
“So you need to go back where you came from, and that’s just feel, it’s your natural shot. It’s the fade, so it is my shot, accept it, it’s my shot, so go with it. You don’t need to hit perfect golf shots all the time. But for me it was just important to be a complete player, and that’s why I need to change and I need to think, and now it’s over fortunately.”
It isn’t that he’s reverting to some older version of his swing, it’s that he’s reverting to the feel and trust of himself that was inherent in that swing.
“The simple way, in the past I could only hit left to right. Then I wanted to hit the other way, as well, to add it to my repertoire. I did this, and now the normal shot is how it was in the past, but when I need the draw, I can hit it. Sometimes. (Laughter.)”
His striving for perfection comes not so much for a need to live up to being a top player in the world, it’s rather his Germanic DNA. But even so, remaining a top player in the world has built in hindrances that don’t make the task any easier:
“No, I think it’s because of where I’m from, in Germany, we always look for perfection. This is just in my nature, I think. The expectation from yourself when you’re No.1 in the world, you look for perfection. Everybody is expecting you to win every week, especially from my home country where golf is not as big as here in the U.S., but everybody expects you — you are the best in the world, so why didn’t you win?”
“It’s very difficult to deal with all those things. If you win or not, people tell you their opinion, and it’s very difficult to deal with all that, and I didn’t really know how to handle it in the past.”
“Now it’s a lot different, but there are a lot of things besides the golf. The golf all of a sudden doesn’t become that interesting anymore. You need to deal with other things in order to play good golf again, which a lot of people don’t see, and that’s okay. I’m not expecting them to see it, but just for yourself that you know where the problem is. The problem is not the golf, it’s the distractions off the golf course.”
Just what does thinking too much mean?
“If you don’t play with your feel, with your instinct. I can say confidently that I can hit any shot. It’s just a matter of if you can handle the pressure, if you can hit the right shot at the right time when you need to. That’s the tough part.”
“But everybody out here on the PGA Tour can hit any shot really if they want to. It’s just a matter of really making it happen when you have to, and that is something that you need to trust yourself, especially on a golf course like this that’s very difficult, especially the back nine like the last three, four holes, you need confidence and you need to hit — you need to hit brave shots.”
“Even if you screw up once in a while, it’s okay, everybody does that once in a while, but at least you play brave, and that’s good playing and that’s not playing like a wimp, just trying to get it over with.”
“But that’s not the way I like to play, and that is what I noticed the last couple years, that’s the way I played because I was not that confident. I thought too much about making too many mistakes and just staying in the tournament, making the cut and trying to work yourself up. That’s too much crap. No one needs that. Just distraction.” [Which, by the way, pretty much describes the shortcomings in my Monday qualifying efforts.]
And then a very interesting question from the media about how that “wasted” first year impacted on his ability to play for Europe in the Ryder Cup.
“Well, wasted, I mean, golf‑wise. I learned a lot, and I’m very, very thankful that that year happened. But then the Ryder Cup is — yeah, I didn’t play well at all going to the Ryder Cup. I almost thought, you know, I shouldn’t play because I’m not really helping right now, and that’s why it was okay for me to play only one foursome I think I played out of four, which was completely fine with me.”
“But then in the end when you play singles, it doesn’t matter how bad you play. Through playing with your heart and playing with passion, you can just get it done somehow. If you have all that team spirit helping you, and Olazábal there, it creates something that you feel like you gain all of a sudden a lot more, and you can beat Stricker and you can — we can still beat the USA. Even though it’s tough, it’s possible. You just play with your heart and with your experience, and then fortunately it worked out for us, and fortunately I could make that last putt.
For all of his effort to try to hit the ball right to left before he returned to his natural shot patterns, it did come up during Thursday’s round and he tells us how he managed to get it done:
“I needed to on 2. It’s a tough tee shot for me. But I stood on the tee box and the wind is into off the left, and you need to draw the ball, so it’s shocking. It’s shocking, you standing there, but I just told myself, you’ve done it many times before in Augusta. You need to draw certain shots. You have to.”
“That’s being brave. If you hit a bad shot, okay, it happens, but at least you tried the shot, and I pulled it off and I had a good eagle chance. Through those shots you gain confidence.”
This interview was fascinating to me because it reminded me of his response to a question I was able to ask him my first year covering the Accenture Match Play Championship. I don’t even remember the question, but it elicited his assertion — and I’m paraphrasing — that in order to play with a clear mind, you have to play with love in your heart.
I’ve been fascinated by Martin Kaymer ever since.