PINEHURST, N.C. — The inevitable hiccups finally arrived for Martin Kaymer late Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Open. Early in his third round, Kaymer's leisurely championship march had veered into dangerous territory.
The 29-year-old German had bogeyed his second hole, missed a very makable birdie putt at No. 3, then pulled his tee shot at the 542-yard par-4 fourth left. Way left, and into a thick, gnarly clump of pine straw amid a cluster of trees.
Suddenly, a hint of drama seemed to be whispering into the grounds at Pinehurst No. 2. Maybe a door was opening for all those hopeful also-rans in the U.S. Open field who needed Kaymer to give back at least some of the dominant six-shot lead he had built through the first two rounds.
With his tee shot practically swallowed by the straw and dirt, Kaymer and caddie Craig Connolly discussed their options. They surveyed a potential recovery shot through the gallery and up the parallel fifth fairway. They grabbed handfuls of pine straw and tossed them aside, trying at least to get a better look at the lie. And after USGA President Tom O'Toole summoned a rules official to help answer questions about a potential free drop that was denied, Kaymer put his hands on his hips and smiled at O'Toole.
"If you have any idea how to play it," Kaymer said, "I'll follow you."
Of course Kaymer has been the expert everyone else has been chasing. So naturally, he took his medicine with a one-stroke unplayable lie, calmly hooked a chip back into the fairway, then got up and down from 165 yards out for a critical bogey save.
"I didn't deserve to make par or anything," he said. "But bogey would have been acceptable. So that was quite nice to save bogey there."
On the next hole, the 530-yard par-5 fifth, Kaymer knocked his second shot — a 7-iron from 205 yards — to about 10 feet and dropped the eagle putt. Just like that, he was back to 10 under, still in total control of his nerves and of the major championship.
Kaymer will head to the first tee Sunday with quite a cushion, five shots ahead of both Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton. The duo of Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson is six back. And Brandt Snedeker is the sixth player in red figures at 1 under.
Still, they all understand where the tournament and its leader stand.
"It's like a second tournament going on," Fowler said. "We'll see what Martin does. He's obviously on top of his game."
No, Kaymer's third-round 72 didn't have anywhere near the sizzle his matching 65s carried the previous two days. Heck, he made three times as many bogeys on his first six holes Saturday as he had in rounds one and two combined. But the beauty of Kaymer's week hasn't been the shots he has hit so much as the equanimity he has shown, his positive energy a buoy when the waters grow choppy.
Saturday's early bogeys never flustered Kaymer.
"I knew what I did wrong," he said. "I missed the tee shots. I didn't make any mental mistakes or any strategy mistakes, it was just poor golf shots. I think, even obviously after the first two days, for me it's OK to hit some poor shots once in a while."
Kaymer also admitted to watching "The Legend of Bagger Vance" on Friday and happily echoed one of the film's predominant messages.
"At the end of the day," Kaymer said, "we're playing a game."
He shrugged. He grinned. And when he was asked if he was looking forward to Sunday's final round, one in which he will take that big lead into the sweltering North Carolina heat and the teeth of final round pressure at a major, Kaymer confirmed he was.
"I am looking forward to see how I feel, how I react to certain situations," he said. "Anything can happen. I can lead by seven or eight shots after nine holes. I can be down to all square. So it will be an exciting round. For me, personally, it will be interesting how I handle it."
Center stage will be his. It has been all week.