PINEHURST, N.C. – You don’t knock out the field at U.S. Opens.
Yes, Tiger Woods did at Pebble Beach in 2000, and so did Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011, but they went rogue, massively departing from script.
Martin Kaymer may end up doing the same thing at Pinehurst No. 2, but Saturday he veered more to the formula in how these championships are supposed to be won. He looked more like a guy in a brawl trying to be the only puncher who isn’t knocked out. He looked like he was going to have to win this thing the way they’re usually won. He looked like he might end up being the last man standing.
With Pinehurst No. 2 turning firmer, faster and fiercer, Kaymer struggled for the first time in this championship, and yet he emerged at day’s end bruised but still very much in command in his bid to win his second major championship.
With an important birdie at the last, Kaymer posted a hard-fought 2-over-par 72.
Six shots up at day’s start, Kaymer saw his lead shrink to four on the back nine, with momentum working against him.
That birdie at the last, and a timely eagle on the front nine, left Kaymer at 8-under 202, five shots clear of Rickie Fowler (67) and Erik Compton (67), the two-time heart transplant recipient looking to make his medical miracle a golf miracle, too.
As vulnerable as Kaymer looked Saturday, this is still his championship to lose.
Nobody’s blown a lead of five shots or more going into the final round of the U.S. Open since Mike Brady in 1919.
“The biggest challenge is that you keep going, that you don’t try to defend anything,” Kaymer said. “If you try to defend, then you change your game plan and you don’t swing as free as usual. So that would be the biggest challenge tomorrow.”
Kaymer didn’t give away his advantage Saturday, but he gave the field something to work with.
He gave them a glimmer of hope.
“Anything can happen,” said Dustin Johnson (70), who is six shots back. “I’ve yet to feel like I’ve played a great round, and I’ve been playing pretty well on Sundays this year. Hopefully, I can continue that.”
Nearly perfect the first two days, with just a single bogey over the first 36 holes, Kaymer kept knocking shots into trouble in the third round. He made five bogeys Saturday. He pulled his drive hard left at the fourth, up against a tree and took a penalty drop for an unplayable lie. He putted off the green at the sixth and made bogey. He couldn’t get up and down at the 13th and again at the 15th, making bogeys.
Still, Kaymer never came close to looking like he was going to lose his poise, and that doesn’t bode well for the field.
After taking that unplayable at No. 4, Kaymer punched a shot up the fairway and holed a 15-foot putt for a terrific bogey. At the very next hole, after pulling another tee shot into the native grasses, he carved a 7-iron from 210 yards right at the flagstick. He holed a 4-footer for eagle at No. 5.
Kaymer’s ball striking has been a strength overall here, but his biggest asset just might be his attitude. This is clearly a different guy than the one who struggled much of the last three seasons. He looks and sounds so secure now, like a man content with whatever his best effort gets him. He showed winning The Players Championship last month that he’s rebuilt his swing and his confidence after losing both with his fall from world No. 1 three years ago.
Watching the movie “Bagger Vance” on Friday, Kaymer said he was struck by the movie’s message, something he seems to have found long before seeing the flick.
“At the end of the day, we’re playing a game,” Kaymer said. “We can’t control a lot of things that happen on the golf course. You just have to play.”
Kaymer said he has been guilty of trying to control too much in his game and life, but he appears to be letting go of the angst of what he can’t control.
“It’s about feel and touch,” Kaymer said. “You have to play with your heart. You can’t control too many things, and that’s what I was trying to do the last few years. Now, I just play.”
Come Sunday, that might be all the formula Kaymer needs to win.