PINEHURST, N.C. – There is always a No. 1-ranked player in the world. That’s how math works. Someone has to compile the most points. Someone has to be at the top of the list.
But there is a huge difference between being No. 1, which comes down to a formula, and the being the best, which comes down to a feeling. There have been six different No. 1 players since Tiger Woods’ game began to teeter a bit.
But there has not been a best golfer in the world since that time.
And that might be about to change.
In the last 20 months, Martin Kaymer made the putt that kept the Ryder Cup in Europe. He won the The Players Championship. And this weekend he put on a display of golf at Pinehurst No. 2 that left his peers awestruck. It wasn’t just that he won the U.S. Open by eight shots. It wasn’t just that he finished at 9 under par during a week when only two other players barely bettered par.
No, it was that the world’s best players weren’t even sure what game he was playing.
“I’m wondering how he did it,” said Rory McIlroy, once the No. 1-ranked player on earth.
“He kind of killed the event in the first two days,” said Henrik Stenson, the No. 2-ranked player in the world now.
“Tiger Woods 2000 is here,” Bo Van Pelt said. “He looks just like Martin Kaymer this week.”
Kaymer was Tiger dominant – a 65 in brutal conditions on Thursday; a 65 on Friday with the pressure of being the leader; a spellbinding 72 on Saturday when the USGA tried to melt him down with landmine pin placements; a decisive 69 on Sunday with everyone watching for the first fissure. This was a performance akin to Woods at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews in 2000, Nicklaus at the 1965 Masters, Ray Floyd in Augusta in 1976, Rory at Congressional in 2011 and Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews in 2010.
And it came from a man who might have what it takes to not only regain the No. 1 spot in the rankings, but to do what’s more difficult – to become what you might call the heavyweight golfing champion of the world. That was a title that used to matter, too – heavyweight champion of the world – before boxing fractured and ruptured and every other Kiwanis Club began giving out their own title belts.
There is no official heavyweight golfing champion. It comes down to how people – fans, players, media, betting parlors, Fortune 500 companies – see you. To become heavyweight champ, it’s not enough to collect enough points and pick up a bunch of top-10 finishes. In the last few years, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, McIlroy, Adam Scott and Kaymer have been ranked No. 1 in the world. But did anyone really see any of them as the world’s best player? Scott is a wonderful player, but he has one major championship and five PGA Tour wins in the last four years, and that’s just not going to get it done. Westwood and Donald have never won a major; you can’t be the heavyweight champion of golf without one.
McIlroy has those two majors, but you never know what you’re going to get with him. After going into 2013 as the No. 1-ranked player he was a non-factor at Augusta, worse at the U.S. Open, and he missed the cut at the British Open. He has spoken honestly about how he just wasn’t ready for the moment.
So, you ask: Who has been the heavyweight champion of golf the last five or six years? And my answer is this: Nobody. Even Woods, who won a bunch of non-majors last year, could not take back his title, because he has not won a major in six years. The crown has been abdicated until such time when someone can pull the sword from the stone and become king. It was this way, too, in the mid-to-late 1990s when a bunch of golfers like Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Fred Couples briefly reigned. It took the Alexander the Great awesomeness of Woods to consolidate power and take control of the game.
Is Kaymer good enough to do that, to become the clear-cut best golfer in the world? Maybe. There are a few things that make Kaymer intriguing. For one: He has already faced some demons. Kaymer skyrocketed to the No. 1 ranking after he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010. Kaymer was 26 years old when he climbed to No. 1 and nobody outside of golf’s inner circle had even heard of him. He was an example of a player who was ranked No. 1, but not the greatest.
Kaymer wanted the latter. He decided to learn how to hit a draw, so that he could win at Augusta. Kaymer’s natural shot shape is a cut – a gentle fade from left to right. But Augusta mostly requires a draw – a shot that moves right to left. It was a fascinating decision for Kaymer, to basically try to change his golf swing just as he got to No. 1. He could have kept the old swing, won many millions, enjoyed life. But that wasn’t enough for his ambition. This was reminiscent of what Woods did after winning the ’97 Masters by a record score. It was reminiscent of what Tom Watson did after he won his first major championship, the 1975 British Open. I have asked Watson many times what would motivate a man who just won his first major to tear up his golf swing.
“I wanted to be the best golfer in the world,” he says every time. “And I did not have a swing good enough to do that.”
“I’ve answered that question so many times, honestly, I get tired of it,” Kaymer said when asked the same question Sunday. “I’m sorry. But I just want to become a complete player, that’s it.”
He does not want to revisit that anymore, and you can’t blame him. Kaymer’s effort to hit a draw turned disastrous. His entire swing fell apart. This was happening just as he was getting worldwide attention for the first time – and massive attention in Germany. In 2012, he missed cuts at the British Open and the PGA Championship and was lost. He had his Ryder Cup heroics late that year, but the slump did not stop at Medinah. He dropped out of the top 50 in the rankings. He readily admits he began to despise golf. Even at that Ryder Cup, when he ended up hero, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal seemed to be protecting him – or hiding him – before Sunday singles.
Kaymer admits he began to despise the game.
Let’s be blunt about this: This is usually a one-way trip into golf oblivion. Most great players don’t find their way back. David Duval didn’t. Ian Baker-Finch didn’t. But Kaymer was unwilling to give in. He tried relentlessly to find his old swing and, in the process, he found something even better: his old joy for golf.
I loved what he had to say Saturday when asked about how he felt on the 18th tee with a big lead at the U.S. Open.
“I watched ‘Bagger Vance’ yesterday,” he said of that ethereal golf movie that tries to make the game Zen-like. “And he said, ‘At the end of the day we’re playing a game.’ And that is what we’re doing. We can’t control a lot of things that happen on the golf course. You have to play the game.
“I like to be in control of things. It’s the way I think a lot of Germans are. But at the end of the day, you have to feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel and trust your skill and all the work. And today when I was standing on 18, that’s a tough tee shot. There’s pretty much no fairway. It’s very difficult to see any fairway from the back tee.
“So you stand there and, for me, it was such an enjoyable shot because I knew exactly where I wanted to aim. And I thought, ‘What a great position this is now.”
That’s some pretty deep stuff from Kaymer – to be able to have such positive thoughts in the middle of the golf tournament is positively Nicklaus-like.
Professional golf is a better game with a dominant player. He gives everyone someone to target. He gives the fans someone to root for or against. He gives tournaments shape and rhythm and a certain order. Was anyone really surprised that Scott, the world’s current No. 1-ranked player, did not contend at the U.S. Open and didn’t really contend at the Masters, either? No. He actually finished ninth at the Open, 14th at the Masters – that’s good, right?
It is good. Scott has now finished top 15 in four consecutive majors. That’s the sort of consistency that makes a player No. 1. But it doesn’t make him the king.
Kaymer is the man who would be king, now. After the PGA Championship, after the Ryder Cup, after The Players Championship and after that virtuoso performance at Pinehurst, he’s the one guy who seems to have the game, the determination and the mental strength to become the heavyweight champion of golf – the first true titleholder since Woods. The rankings put him at No. 11. But the eyes and heart put him much higher.