MEDINAH, Ill. – Perhaps it was no surprise that the most unlikely Ryder Cup in history had an equally implausible hero.
For months, Martin Kaymer, 27, was the beleaguered former No. 1 player in the world, the classy player whom newspaper columnists opined should forfeit his spot on the team, the major winner who was buried on the bench by European captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
And now, in the fading sunlight Sunday at Medinah, after the Europeans authored the largest comeback ever on foreign soil – and Kaymer delivered the clinching point in a 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 victory – he draped a German flag around his shoulders, extended his arms and made a black, red and gold cape. A most fitting display of Ryder Cup heroism.
“This,” Kaymer, the 2010 PGA champion, said, “means more than a major championship right now.”
He jogged – OK, he floated – between the barricades behind the 18th green, across the first tee and onto the scaffolding that was erected over a cart path near the clubhouse. There, his teammates were celebrating. Large bottles of Moet champagne were being uncorked.
On the bridge, Sergio Garcia took a satisfying gulp of champagne and then, after motioning to a European fan down below, slowly poured out some of the bubbly. The fan opened wide. He, too, tasted some of the victory.
In 2011, Martin Kaymer was the No. 1-ranked player in the world for 10 glorious weeks. He was described as the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” because of his exceptional long game, and he was nicknamed the “Germanator,” because of his unflinching personality.
But in May of that year, he forfeited the top spot – in part because of the sterling play of other Europeans (such as Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy), and also due to a swing change that was slow to take hold.
Last November, though, he pieced together four rounds in the 60s and won the World Golf Championships event in China. But this year, he said, “I haven’t done much.”
Even that may be an understatement. He finished T-7 in Malaysia in April, and after that his season became a blur of middling results. At the PGA Championship, where Kaymer was grouped with Tiger Woods for the first two days, he shot 79-79.
Not surprisingly, his poor play coincided with a freefall in the European Ryder Cup points standings. No longer was he a lock to make the team. (He eventually finished 10th, the last automatic qualifying spot.)
Stories began to appear in the papers – the cruel and unfair kind, the ones written with the aid of anonymous sources. There was one story, in particular, that appeared in The Sun in London. Privately, the report said, Kaymer was considering turning down a spot on the team if his game didn’t improve. He was too embarrassed by his play. He didn’t want to be the weakest link. He didn’t want to be blamed for a European loss.
Asked if his man was stung by the criticism, Craig Connelly, Kaymer’s caddie, replied, “No. It just makes you play better.”
After the PGA, Kaymer took three weeks off and practiced diligently at home in Mettmann, Germany. When he returned to competition, at the Euro Tour’s KLM Open, he was paired for two days with Olazabal. It was a dress rehearsal.
Kaymer had a decent showing there (T-21), and a week later, at the Italian Open, he finished T-5, his best result in five months. In public, Olazabal continued to express confidence in Kaymer, who has dropped all the way to 32nd in the world. But his actions at Medinah suggested otherwise.
Kaymer played only one session Friday – a 3-and-2 fourballs loss with Justin Rose – and was benched all day Saturday. It was the captain’s attempt to hide a perceived weakness. Swede Peter Hanson took exception with his own two-session benching, and reportedly had a heated exchange with Olazabal. Not Kaymer.
“To sit out and watch your team . . . sure, you’re supporting them, but there’s nothing you can do,” said Connelly. “He galvanized himself, got his thoughts together, and knew he had to step in today and get a point for the team. He was confident of playing well today.”
In Match 11 Sunday, the penultimate group, he would face American Steve Stricker, one of this Ryder Cup’s grave disappointments.
Heading into singles, Europe trailed, 10-6. It was nearly an insurmountable deficit. Kaymer’s match – the 11th of 12 singles matches – likely wouldn’t even factor in the end result.
Of course, this European charge on Sunday was unprecedented. And as Kaymer and Stricker strode to the tee of the par-4 16th, still all square, Olazabal walked over and told Kaymer: “Martin, we need your point. We need it. I don’t really care how you do it – just deliver.”
Kaymer sank a 7-foot par putt to halve that hole, and then he took a 1-up lead after Stricker bungled the par-3 17th.
On 18, Kaymer – the former Ultimate Driving Machine – sailed his tee shot right, into a fairway bunker. He had 165 yards to the flag, and nearly all of his teammates were huddled near the edge of the green, and thousands of fans were on that hole, crammed together, and they were cheering and jeering and making it difficult to concentrate.
Kaymer’s 8-iron shot from the bunker hit the left fridge, took a fortuitous bounce right and settled 25 feet from the hole. Stricker’s approach sailed 40 feet past the cup, and his birdie try never came close. Par.
Putting for the win, his slippery birdie putt caught the slope and drifted 6 feet past the cup. He grimaced.
Flags waved in the background, and Kaymer tried to concentrate amid a cacophony of noise, the Chicago crowd serving as the U.S. team’s 13th man.
Now Kaymer was over the putt, ready to pull back the putter blade, and still the noise did not cease.
The putt went right in the center of the cup.
“I didn’t think about missing,” Kaymer said afterward. “You only have one choice. But if you ask me now how that putt went and how it rolled, I have no idea. I can’t remember. When it went in, I was just very happy, and that is something that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
In celebration, Kaymer dropped his putter, clenched his fists and shook them furiously. He then wheeled around and leapt into Sergio Garcia’s arms, and soon he was engulfed in a sea of blue.
“He’s just the kind of guy you want to have, with a 5-footer on the last to win,” Hanson said. “He’s so calm. He doesn’t get stressed out and nervous.”
“This feeling,” Kaymer said, standing on the 18th green, “it’s not describable. I never felt it like this before, and I didn’t know it would be that emotional, that big. To make that final putt, it means so much.”
Amid a throng of photographers and TV cameramen, Kaymer was ushered from the back of the green to the front, from the front of the green to the back. Finally, he was ready to conduct his first interview, his eyes still glazed, until he realized his oversight.
“Wait, guys,” he said. “I have to go find Steve.”
After a brief and delirious search, he located Stricker, who was being consoled by teammates. They shook hands. They said “great match.” They went in different directions.
Amid the euphoria, someone handed Kaymer the German flag – the one now drenched in champagne – and Kaymer wore it like a cape.
Nicolas Colsaerts, the long-hitting Ryder Cup rookie from Belgium, grabbed Kaymer’s face with both hands and screamed, “You were f------ unbelievable!”
Onward, to the fans left of Medinah’s 18th green, the ones who were screaming and jumping, the grown men and women who wore Rory McIlroy wigs and Union Jack outfits and sang, “Ole, ole, ole!”
As Kaymer played to the crowd, waving as a savvy politician might, the flamboyant Ian Poulter – 4-0 and the Man of the Match – slid onto the grass and held his arms aloft, a rock star at the end of his concert set.
Kaymer was content to stand to the side, laughing at Poulter’s antics and marveling at this four-hour turnaround, from Europe’s greatest weakness to one of its brightest stars.
“The boy just proved his worth today,” Connelly gushed on the 18th green. “And how fantastic is that?”
Relive Day 2 matches Monday at 8 p.m. ET and the singles matches Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.