PINEHURST, N.C. – Never mind the five-shot lead – on U.S. Open Sunday, Martin Kaymer was bracing himself for the most difficult day of his career.
The suffocating pressure.
The crippling expectations.
The dark thoughts.
When he knocked in a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole, Kaymer dropped his putter in relief – not because he’d gutted out a taut victory, but because his exhausting, wire-to-wire Open was mercifully over.
The man who drained all the drama out of this event by 1 p.m. Friday also left little to chance in the final round, extending his lead and burying the field with one of the most dominant U.S. Open performances in history. The top two on the leaderboard read KAYMER -9, COMPTON/FOWLER -1, and, really, it didn’t even seem that close.
Only the worst U.S. Open collapse in 95 years stood between Kaymer and his second career major – and neither he nor his pursuers bothered to prolong the drama. His eight-shot romp was the second-largest margin of victory in an Open in the past 75 years.
On a stifling afternoon at Pinehurst No. 2, Kaymer was the only player in the last eight groups who broke par, signing for a 1-under 69 and refusing to play the prevent defense that has doomed so many Open frontrunners. For his many awe-inducing attributes – the booming drives, the purely struck irons, the steely putting stroke – this might be his best: The victory here was his sixth in seven attempts when holding a 54-hole lead. He slams the door more often than a whiny teen.
By day’s end, only three players held their heads above level par, and the only uncertainty down the stretch was whether Johnny Miller, calling his final U.S. Open for NBC Sports, would tear up in the booth. (He did not.)
As for Kaymer, he’d heard and read all the comments about him being a one-hit (major) wonder. Well, he blew that premature reputation to smithereens, his two-year slide from world No. 1 serving as the requisite fuel for his return to the game’s elite. Now, with this victory, he joined Rory McIlroy as the only players under age 35 with two or more majors.
“It’s quite nice proof,” Kaymer said afterward, “even though I don’t feel like I need to prove a lot to people. But it’s quite satisfying to have two under your belt.”
Realistically, this story might as well have been filed Friday, when Kaymer raced out to opening 65s, set the Open’s 36-hole record at 10-under 130 and put this tournament in a headlock. Sure, he snapped a 30-hole bogey-free streak during Saturday’s 72, but his worst round of the week reduced his lead by only one shot, to five.
Sunday’s final round proved a mere formality, and he never led by fewer than four. In the process, Kaymer became just the third player in the last 30 years to win a major in wire-to-wire fashion with no ties, and his 9-under 271 was the second-lowest total in U.S. Open history. Poor Mike Brady remains the answer to the trivia question, the only player in Open history to forfeit a five-shot lead (1919).
So what was Kaymer’s main challenge Sunday?
“To not think too much about that trophy,” he said, “to not think too much about sitting here now, about what you’re going to say, about how you might celebrate on 18. It goes through your head. Not many talk about it, but it is what it is. We are humans; we are not robots.”
Kaymer’s brilliance capped a week in which the only other star was the course. Pinehurst is one of America’s golf meccas, but Donald Ross’ most famous design underwent a radical restoration in 2010, an ambitious project that was bold in its timing, with consecutive Opens only four years away. The most dramatic changes, of course, were the brown, baked-out fairways and also the elimination of the hack-out rough that has come to define the year’s second major. In its place was a sandy waste area that required imagination, a firm wrist through impact and, at times, a bottle of Roundup.
Left largely unchanged by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were No. 2’s speedy, sloping, turtleback greens, and they proved as sinister as ever. With an assist from a vengeful USGA, several players, even Kaymer, stroked putts that rolled all the way off the green. That embarrassing sight never gets old, not at this major, but Pinehurst served as a more inviting host this week, and not only for one player.
The 2014 Pinehurst Open featured more players under par after 72 holes, a higher percentage of fairways and greens hit, more birdies and eagles made, and better scoring.
Unlike in 1999, though, there was no defining moment on 18.
Unlike in 2005, there was no final-group collapse.
No, what we had here was a 29-year-old who, for the second time in the past 39 days (Players Championship), switched into seek-and-destroy mode. Kaymer showed no weakness, no remorse and, seemingly, no pulse.
“He kind of killed the event in the first two days,” Henrik Stenson said. “He left everyone in the dust.”
Indeed, left in his grass-stained wake was an A-list cast of characters that included Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar and Stenson … all of whom exited the village of Pinehurst still major-less.
Phil Mickelson? Well, he’s still without the major that he covets most, after failing to break par in all four rounds here and finishing joint 28th, a performance that more closely resembled the 2005 Pinehurst Open (T-33) than the one that was relived so often this week, his duel with Payne Stewart in 1999 (2nd). A record six-time runner-up, Mickelson insisted that he still has “three to four” good chances to complete the career grand slam, though certainly not if he again requires 121 swats with the putter.
An even better story than that, of course, would have been a major won by Erik Compton, a 34-year-old now on his third heart, but that incredible tale didn’t come to fruition, either. Kaymer’s closest pursuer for 11 holes Sunday, Compton made three bogeys in a five-hole stretch on the back nine and finished T-2, eight shots back.
“I don’t think anybody would have ever thought I would do that, not even myself,” he said of his runner-up finish, which earned him a trip to Augusta next spring. “So you can’t ever write yourself off; you just can’t give up.”
Though Compton may have been the feel-good story of the week, the U.S. Open undoubtedly belonged to Kaymer, the 2010 PGA winner who ascended to world No. 1 in 2011, if only for eight weeks. Ill-prepared at the time for the pressures and demands of being No. 1, and lost in a swing change to “become a complete player,” he suffered through a two-year decline that saw his world ranking plunge to 63rd.
Now, after two huge wins in a month, he has returned to the top 15 in the world. More importantly, the motivation has returned, too.
“He wants to get back there,” caddie Craig Connelly said of being No. 1. “Now, it’s full steam ahead.”