PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There is a sweet little irony to Martin Kaymer being in contention to win here, on the home turf of PGA Tour headquarters, at one of its prized TPC backdrops.
It was just a few years ago, not long before Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship, when he couldn’t even get onto the practice tee of one of these courses. The native of Germany is a Scottsdale, Ariz., transplant and his home club, Whisper Rock, was closed on Mondays during the summer. So he called TPC Scottsdale, a top-10 player in the world seeking to practice one day each week at the facility.
“But I was not a PGA Tour member,” he recalled, “so I was not allowed to practice.”
Moral of the story: Kaymer has gotten used to being an outsider.
It happened again when he won his major championship later that summer. The biggest headlines afterward swirled around a big-hitting guy named Bubba Watson turning risk-reward into a harrowing defeat and another big hitter named Dustin Johnson carelessly grounding his club in a hazard on the final hole. Kaymer? He was the winner, but he was also an afterthought.
And now it’s happening yet again. He played 18 holes alongside American wunderkind Jordan Spieth in Saturday’s final pairing, with the two of them ending the day deadlocked at 12 under, three strokes clear of the next closest competitor. If you only listened to the partisan crowd, though, it felt like Kaymer was playing Garfunkel to Spieth’s Simon – just a sidekick along for the ride.
“I had the same experience when I was in the playoff against Bubba at the PGA,” explained Kaymer, who posted an even-par 72. “When you're trying to win a big tournament, usually the big tournaments, you play them in America, so I'm always a foreigner. It's a good challenge. It's another challenge of that day. It's not easy, but I know what's going to happen. I know what I can expect, and therefore it's OK.”
The truth is, we can extend the analogy one step further.
The American and the European, essentially playing match play, trying to outduel each other? The scene owned the gravitas of a Ryder Cup – without the matching team uniforms.
“It felt a bit like a Ryder Cup match, but we didn't play in Europe, obviously,” Kaymer said with a smirk.
“With how great of a guy Martin is, I wish it didn't feel as much like a Ryder Cup,” added Spieth. “That's really kind of what it felt like out there, which is great. I think that's only going to help me to have momentum with the crowd behind me.”
This is the part of the story where a gentle reminder is offered: The last time a Ryder Cup was contested, two years ago at Medinah Country Club, it was Kaymer who clinched the winning point for the European side on U.S. soil.
None of this is to suggest that the two players were jingling coins in their pockets or producing any other forms of gamesmanship during the day. In fact, it was just the opposite.
After Spieth lipped out a birdie attempt on the 10th hole, they hit their tee shots on 11 and his playing partner sidled up next to him as they walked down the fairway.
“He's like, ‘Just don't worry about it; just have some fun; this is where you want to be,” Spieth related. “Which was really cool for him to come up and say that at the time. He did get to a couple‑shot lead at the time, so maybe that made him happier, but it was just really nice for him to do that in the setting that we were in.”
The biased gallery didn’t repay the favor.
When Kaymer missed his par putt on the final hole, it led to a burst of cheering from outside the ropes, the assembled crowd realizing the newest American hero would enter the final round in a tie for the lead.
“I wish [that] didn't happen,” Spieth said. “He handled it gracefully, just a class act, took his hat off, smiled. We were saying how much we enjoyed playing with each other and we'll enjoy it tomorrow.”
Yes, Sunday should be more of the same, with the two players enjoying each other’s company in the final pairing – and the fans treating the festivities like a Ryder Cup.
All of which should suit Kaymer just fine. He’s used to being an outsider. And he’s been pretty successful in this scenario over the years, too.