Martin Kaymer won the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, because he had the least amount of trouble with this fabled venue of American golf that Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore restored to it’s look back in 1935. That is, no lush rough bordering the fairways, rather sandy areas native to the area festooned with low scrub shrubs. To do so, they literally studied archival photos of the era that had once been thrown away.
Kymer finished at 9-under par with a grateful, punctuating birdie on 18. Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton were playing for 2nd much of the day and ended up tied at 1-under, 8 strokes back.
As a measure of the difficulty of the course and Kaymer’s greatness this week, everyone was packed densely together behind that, most of them big names:
- T4, 1-over – Keegan Bradley, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Henrik Stetson
- T9, 2-over – Adam Scott, Jimmy Walker, Brandt Snedeker
- T12, 3-over – Jim Furyk, Kevin Na, Marcel Siem, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar
One of the first things that Kaymer needed to deal with was the expectations of others. This can be a paralyzing consideration until you decide that this is just one other thing in a round of golf that you can’t control, so just let it go.
“I think I played really, really well on Thursday and Friday and that gave me a really nice cushion. I said to Craig, to my caddie this morning, that this moment will be very, very difficult, probably the toughest round we ever played because of all the expectations that you have on yourself, other people have. I’m sure Craig had the expectations, as well. So it’s very difficult to go through that, playing on a different continent. So to sit here now with the U.S. Open trophy is tough for me to say. I’m very happy.”
Nevertheless, old habits die hard and vindication can be sweet:
“You want to win Majors in your career, but if you can win one more [his first being the 2010 PGA Championship], it means so much more. What I said the other day, that some people, especially when I went through that [swing-change low], called me the one-hit wonder and those things. So it’s quite nice proof, even though I don’t feel like I need to prove a lot to people, but somehow it’s quite satisfying to have two under your belt. And I’m only 29 years old, so I hope I have another few years ahead of me.”
But in the next breath, he began to detail the wanderings of the mind that even a great player like him experiences. Perhaps he is a great champion because he can inventory these thoughts having dealt with them, while others may think they just need another lesson:
“But the challenge was not to think too much about that trophy, not to think too much about sitting here now, about what you’re going to say. Not too much thinking about how you might celebrate on 18 and those things, you know. It goes through your head, and I’m sure a lot of players feel the same way. Not many talk about it, but it is what it is. We do think about it. We are humans, and we’re not robots.”
“So it was a tough challenge approaching today. A lot of emotions involved, a lot of expectations, and that’s what I said to Craig. Overall, the whole day will be very, very difficult. And him being so relaxed and so positive and open, me being more focused and very strict on things, it was a good combination. And that is what I needed. So without Craig, it would have been a lot more difficult today.”
With the focus on young players like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, you might think that Kaymer, a former PGA Champion, would be in the conversation, even though he was going through his swing overhaul. Not Kaymer:
“Well, I don’t think I deserved to be under the radar because I didn’t play as good as they did. I think the way Rory played the last few years, you know, when he became No. 1 in the world, the way he handled everything around him, off the golf course, I think he did it very well. And Jordan, he’s just a very, very nice person, very nice kid who’s playing very good golf. And hopefully he can move forward and become even better and get more experience, and therefore win golf tournaments.”
“And I hope that he will win Majors, as well. Because, you know, that is what the PGA Tour, what golf needs, those guys. Nice characters, good personalities, that is what we need. And that is what people look up to.”
And then he looked ahead at playing with the two of them in the future. Rather than being jealous of them, he was looking forward to using them as a measure of his skills:
“I was looking forward to competing against them for the next few years, because at one stage after my adjustments that I did (and I talked way, way too much about it), I was really looking forward to competing against them and to see, you know, who has the stronger and better nerves coming down the last five, six holes in big tournaments.”
“So that is what everybody can look forward to. And obviously we have some players who have — who are a little bit more experienced out here, like you have Tiger, Phil and those guys. And then you have a different players that are 10, 12 years younger. So it’s quite a nice — how you say it — like it’s very wide. So much happening in golf right now. So it’s a lot to look forward to.”
One of the things that Kaymer is very good at is an appearance of calm. But what’s the old saying? “Still waters run deep.” He’s just very experienced in processing his fears and doubts. He called it pressure:
“Well, the pressure was there from the first tee. I would lie if I wouldn’t have felt pressure or if I wouldn’t have been nervous. Of course you’re nervous when you’re leading a Major championship. You can’t tell me that you are calm.”
“But you already know how Saturday starts. And the day didn’t start very well for me yesterday. But it was not a bad thing, looking back, how it brought me back a little bit to normality. The first two days, it was not normal to shoot 10-under par, and I thought it can easily happen today again. When you lead such a big tournament with five shots, it’s very, very difficult to keep going.”
“And therefore it was very nice that I could make some solid shots the first five, six holes, and I was 1-under par, so I was in control. And that was the most important thing for me to stay in control of the golf tournament.”
In the course of answering a question about whether having won The Players wire-to-wire prepared him to go wire-to-wire in the Open, he branched off in the fascinating details of just what it means to be a top player in an unrelenting media age:
“Well, it’s very, very exhausting. It’s very tiring because you have to speak a lot. You have to do a lot of interviews. You have to answer a lot of questions. And people bring thoughts into your head. So it’s very difficult to handle all that from the first day on.”
“Sometimes, on “moving day,” when you move forward and you’re in the lead, then you start answering those questions. But I needed to do that at The Players on Thursday already and this week on Thursday already.”
“So it’s very exhausting. So the main thing is that you always try to stay calm and focus on the main thing. And the main thing is really trying to challenge yourself and play your golf and play against the golf course and not too much against the other players.”
Playing professional golf has been described as a very lonely and selfish pursuit. It dominates everything, trumps all personal considerations unless you are able to find some kind of balance in your personal life.
But aside from that and instances where you might play a practice round with other good players, you spend hours by yourself without saying a word. You are so focused on what you’re trying to reveal to yourself, you have this fascinating deep span of attention that you become immersed in. And because of the pleasure of it, you have no problem running straight to the range after a round to immerse yourself again. And then, with your success, you suddenly become visible:
“Four years ago I didn’t know what’s happening, you know. I was surprised. I was not expecting myself to win a Major at 25. I was surprised about my performance. I was surprised about a lot of things. I couldn’t handle a lot of things that happened in Germany, all the attention that I could get. And then becoming No. 1 in the world, that added another thing. And it was too much. It was just, you know, to be completely honest, it was very difficult to handle everything and to play good golf.”
And then he went on to reveal why we consistently get such great candor and thoughtfulness from him. It turns out that for him, honesty is the best policy:
“So right now I am okay with talking to you in a very calm, normal, relaxed way, as if we were having a normal conversation. In the past, I always think I have to say something special and something that might be interesting. Now I just talk and it’s a lot more — it’s a lot easier for me.”
Then he went on to discuss how his putting became so spectacular all week long. It wasn’t from specifically preparing for Pinehurst:
“No, I didn’t prepare, really, for Pinehurst, you know. I don’t really try to prepare for only one tournament. I try to prepare long-term. And I was playing very well, I knew that, especially after winning The Players.”
“It was quite nice, playing well, getting that confidence, and putting, I really enjoyed the greens. I really had fun on the greens because you could be very creative around the greens and you could play with all the slopes. So it’s really fun for me to play. I got really confident.”
“After the first day, I had a couple of testers early in the round, like the first nine on Thursday afternoon. I could make those putts, so it gave me a lot of confidence. I had a good stroke. I didn’t struggle much on the greens on Thursday and Friday; therefore, it was quite nice knowing that you putt well, you just have to let it happen on the weekend and everything will be fine.”
In earlier interviews this week, he spoke about the perils of playing defensive golf. But here he goes into deeper detail about how he overcame the problem for himself:
“Well, that was the biggest thing, you know. I was talking to my brother before I went out on the golf course in the players lounge. And I talked to my manager about it this morning. I said, how can I find the way, not only saying, but you want to play forward or want to keep going, how do you want to really do it from the inside, and that it comes — like it’s a true feeling?”
“A lot of people can say I want to keep going, I want to play aggressive. But then somehow you hold back. And how can I treat that feeling that is true. And my brother said, it’s very easy, I don’t need to tell you anything more, you know it all. You just have to let it happen.”
“And it’s that simple. You just have to do it. You have to convince yourself. You have to believe. You have to play brave. If you hit a bad shot, you hit a bad shot. But that’s the way you want to play golf or at least the way I want to play golf. You want to go for the flags, if you have the right yardage. Just because you’re leading by five or six shots doesn’t mean you should play defensive. You have to do it, and I did it the first five or six holes [and was 1-under] and that kept me going all day. But it was very important to start off with that attitude.”
Another reporter was impressed by the fact that he routinely goes into this kind of terrific detail and wondered why he continues to do that:
“I just explained. I want to explain so that you understand. Otherwise people write something which is not true. And I’d rather take a minute longer to explain it properly what I mean than if you make something up. (Laughter). I like to be in control here.”
How was his experience in the Ryder Cup he clinched at Medina helpful in playing with Rickie Fowler in front of a partisan crowd? Again, you recognize it for what it is and you just do it:
“Knowing that you’ve been there before. The PGA Championship was a different scenario, because it was a playoff and I didn’t even think that I will get into the playoff. But the Ryder Cup in 2012 was huge because I had to. There was no option. I had to deliver at that point. And today, again, I almost made myself to — you have to win.”
“And knowing that I’ve won big tournaments in the past, that other players who were behind me that they haven’t won yet, and that experience gives you a lot of trust and a lot of belief. Something really bad has to happen that you will screw up. And I know with an attitude that I had that if I hit bad shots, with the right attitude, it’s okay. I can accept it.”
“But the funny thing is when you approach that day with the attitude you don’t hit that many bad shots. So that was the key today.”
And finally, how would he compare his two record 65s at Pinehurst with the 59 he shot on a European mini-tour before he got to the Challenge Tour, the European Tour’s farm system?
“The 59 was — it was a different golf course. To shoot 59 you need something easier than Pinehurst No. 2. But the way I played there was pretty much the same way I play or I try to play every week now, you know”
“Try to go for the targets, which doesn’t always have to be the pin, if you play aggressive to some defensive areas. But just to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
“But to shoot a 59, you need to make a lot of putts. And that day the golf course was not very difficult and I could make all those putts. And I didn’t really realize, to be honest with you, that I had that putt for 59. If I would have known that, I think I was 21 years old, who knows if I would have made the putt if I would have realized it?”
So Kaymer is off to Germany for his next tournament on the European Tour, The BMW International Open. Presumably, he’ll stay in Europe for the Open Championship in four weeks.
With all of these highly personal introspective thoughts in the air, it will be interesting to see if golf catches up to him or if he can continue to ride this wave of certainty in is skill and bravery in his approach. Let’s hope so, just to enjoy the majesty of a human being in full flight.