PINEHURST, N.C. -- Ah, yes. This’ll be great fun. And a great test of a great player’s poise.
The U.S. Open has been throwing everything at Martin Kaymer this week at Pinehurst No. 2 and yet the 29-year-old German has been like Neo from “The Matrix,” twisting and bending and avoiding all the bullets as if they are in slow motion.
Nasty waste areas and turtleback greens? No biggie. Everybody’s got to play them.
The sweltering heat at Pinehurst No. 2? What’s wrong with a little sweat?
A major championship microscope? Kaymer has been enjoying it. It teaches him more about how he handles big moments.
So now comes the real gauntlet Sunday, a late afternoon test that will begin at 3:35 local time. Kaymer has 18 holes to protect his five-shot lead. And if he does, as most expect, he’ll be a U.S. Open champion, a two-time major winner.
But he’s now in a final pairing with Rickie Fowler.
That’s American Rickie Fowler. That’s crowd favorite Rickie Fowler. That’s mega-talented and confident and dressed-in-blinding-neon-orange-on-Sundays Rickie Fowler.
So, yes, Kaymer will once again have plenty to deal with.
He probably woke up Sunday already hearing the chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” that will shadow him around the course. He’ll certainly head to the driving range and the practice area aware of just how much pressure is out there.
And while it’s totally understandable why Fowler will bring a gallery swell and a massive charge of energy in his favor, those who haven’t been taking inventory on the Kaymer’s impressive week here have been missing out on quite the tutorial.
In full focus
With matching 65s to open the tournament, Kaymer found himself in a zone and simply enjoyed every part of it. With a much more choppy 72 in the third round Saturday, he found simple ways to keep himself steady.
Kaymer turned the page on bad shots because, well, this is golf and those happen a lot. So long as they weren’t a result of bad strategy or flawed thinking, he figured, why get upset?
Heck, during Saturday’s third round, Kaymer faced a little bit of everything and some of it totally random.
If an early stretch of three bogeys over five holes didn’t bother him, then why was he going to get angry on the 15th green when a fan screamed his name just as he was lining up a critical 6-foot par putt?
Kaymer heard the yell and he missed the putt.
His fifth bogey of an exhausting day dropped him back to 7-under par for the tournament, three shots worse than where he’d started the day.
That could have been a trap door, a mental letdown that would stalk him back to the clubhouse as his lead shrunk even further.
But that missed putt and that unnecessary gallery distraction?
“If people drink a couple more beers in the heat,” Kaymer said, “I think things like that happen. I’ve played many majors before. I played the Ryder Cup a few times. So I know it can get like this. … It was a little bit distracting. Of course it is. But the only thing you can even think is, ‘OK, it happened. You deserved to make that putt. And then you try to get back to your focus.”
Two holes later, when one of Pinehurst’s odd-looking fox squirrels ran toward Kaymer’s ball on the fringe of the 17th green, he just looked at it quickly, even as the frightened animal darted in zig zags – onto the green, toward Kaymer’s ball, over toward the ropes, back toward the grandstand.
Again, no distraction.
“I mean, they live here,” Kaymer said. “We are just distracting their home.”
On Sunday, it will Fowler playing a home game. Kaymer is the visitor, the still somewhat low-profile European without a legion of fans here.
Fowler deserves so much of the popularity he has attained. He matches his eye-catching wardrobe choices with a very sincere and affable personality. He’s currently controlling his golf swing better than ever and seems halfway home to his 2014 goal of contending in all four majors.
He’s been fun to watch and fun to listen to and as if he didn’t already have enough energy, he came to a dais for his post-round interview Saturday evening sipping a Red Bull.
It’s understandable why the crowds Sunday will encourage Fowler like never before.
But the real question is why Kaymer isn’t more popular, more of a fan favorite? No, he’s not American. But toss that out the window and you’ll find a game that’s battle-tested. He’s won a major before – in 2010 at the PGA Championship. He’s been to No. 1 in the world rankings. He has sank the winning put to clinch the Ryder Cup.
But with all that is Kaymer’s refreshing personality and perspective, his ability to soak in the moments, to enjoy them, to learn from them.
He wants Sunday’s stage, craves to see how he’ll handle the pressure. He even encouraged the USGA to deliver a challenging set-up for the final round.
“If they make it tough tomorrow,” Kaymer said, “it would be very nice.”
A big part of that, of course, is that Kaymer knows his five-shot lead can’t be threatened if his competitors don’t have a set-up that allows them go low. But Kaymer also admits he enjoys seeing how he reacts in these big moments.
He made a birdie on the 18th hole late Saturday evening. It was his first of the day in a round that included five bogeys and an eagle. And while the rest of the world saw that as a big boost to Kaymer’s psyche, when he was asked just how big it was to finish with a five-shot lead instead of just four, he grinned.
“One shot,” he said. “It’s only one shot. If you lead by three, four, five, six, seven shots, at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is that you keep going, that you don’t try to defend anything. If you try to defend, then you change your game plan and you don’t swing as free as usual. So that will be the biggest challenge (Sunday).”
But wasn’t there some much needed momentum to that birdie?
“It will take another 15 hours or so before I can tee it up,” Kaymer said. “So I don’t know if there’s much momentum.”
What Kaymer does know is that his game hasn’t always been dialed in quite like it is right now. There have been struggles. There has been criticism from the outside world – fans, reporters, social media – that bugged him. There have been pushes to tweak his swing and his techniques and mental funks that cause irritation.
But through it all, Kaymer has found ways to calibrate his mindset to exactly where it needs to be.
So back to that 18th hole Saturday for a moment. Kaymer knew what was at stake with a strong finish versus a poor one. He stood on the tee box looking out at a hole that is quite intimidating to the naked eye.
“That’s a tough tee shot,” Kaymer said. “There’s pretty much no fairway. It’s very difficult to see any fairway from the back tee.”
And yet, he pulled his driver and called it “an enjoyable shot.”
“Because I knew exactly where I wanted to aim and I thought, ‘What a great position this is right now. You are 7 under par at the U.S. Open, playing your third round. It’s the final hole. It would be nice to finish it off with a birdie.’ If I miss the fairway, it’s a tougher shot. But if you can pull it off, you gain confidence. So it was a very, very nice thing.”
It’s nice, indeed, to feel that level of serenity, to carry that brand of composure. It’s why not all that long ago Kaymer, a self-admitted control freak, stopped worrying about controlling every little nuance in his game and began thinking about playing free.
“It’s about that feel, that touch, that you play with your heart, that you can’t control too many things,” Kaymer said. “That’s what I was trying to do the last three years. Now I just play.”
So Kaymer will play again Sunday, 18 holes with Fowler with a major on the line. And yet he believes he’s feeling relaxed and confident and ready for it all. It will all be worth watching.