Bernhard Langer was approaching 50. There was no heir apparent in German golf.
Sunesson, filling in for Michelle Wie at the time, mentioned one young prospect with natural skill and amazing poise who had recently turned pro. His name was Martin Kaymer.
“Didn’t I tell you to remember his name?” she asked playfully from behind the 10th green Saturday morning at Dove Mountain, where she watched Kaymer dispose of another opponent in the Match Play Championship on his way to becoming No. 1 in the world.
Stardom came faster for Kaymer than it has for any player this side of Tiger Woods.
And there were early signs of greatness, even if not as many people were paying attention.
Kaymer shot 59 on a mini-tour in Europe, a magic number at any level. He earned his European Tour card without going to Q-school, then was rookie of the year. After winning his first European Tour event in 2008 at Abu Dhabi, he threw down a birdie-birdie-eagle finish in Dubai to finish one shot behind Woods.
Ernie Els wasn’t kidding three years ago when he said of Kaymer, “He’s going to be something, I promise you.”
Kaymer officially took over as No. 1 in the world on Monday. How long he stays at the top remains to be seen, for Lee Westwood will have a chance to take it back this week at the Honda Classic.
This time, however, this is no debate over No. 1.
Despite critics of the world ranking system – most of them in the United States – Westwood earned his No. 1 ranking. Although he has not won a major, no one performed better and more consistently in the biggest tournaments over the two-year period that the ranking uses to measure players around the world.
So why the debate?
Westwood only had three wins during those years. One was the St. Jude Classic, a middle-tier event on the PGA Tour, and only because Robert Garrigus made triple bogey on the 18th hole. Adding to the skepticism, Westwood was home in England the day he reached No. 1, clinched when Kaymer didn’t finish in the top two that week at the Andalucia Masters.
Kaymer’s rise to the top was far more active.
The 26-year-old German has won seven times over the last two years. He won a major with the kind of shots that suggest the PGA Championship won’t be his last one. Kaymer holed a 15-foot par putt on the last hole that got him into a playoff. After Bubba Watson birdied the first of a three-hole playoff, Kaymer answered with a birdie on the toughest par 3 at Whistling Straits.
That was the start of three straight wins.
There already is a mystique about the “Germanator,” who has no glaring weakness and is determined to fix the flaws only he can see. When Europe’s best – not to mention Phil Mickelson – gathered at the Abu Dhabi Championship, Kaymer beat the strongest field on the European Tour by eight shots.
And when Westwood was bounced out of the second round of the Match Play Championship, it opened up an opportunity for Kaymer to reach No. 1 if he could get to the championship match.
He rallied over the final six holes to beat Hunter Mahan in the third round. He hit hybrid onto the 18th green to secure par and beat Miguel Angel Jimenez in the quarterfinal, then calmly holed an 8-foot par on the 18th hole to beat Watson in the semifinal.
For sure, Kaymer did not back his way into No. 1.
It would have been even sweeter to win a World Golf Championship on his way to No. 1.
But that wasn’t necessary.
There should be no argument about it. For now – and perhaps for awhile – Kaymer is the guy to beat, although the ranking is so volatile that a half-dozen players could be No. 1 when the Masters rolls around.
Woods has slipped to No. 5, his lowest ranking since the week before he won the 1997 Masters. Kaymer might be a solid No. 2 if not for Woods’ free fall, first with his personal life and then with his golf swing. Kaymer’s average in the world ranking is 8.36. Woods was at 14.67 when the 2009 season ended.
So in that respect, Woods has as much to do with who’s No. 1 as the player who gets there.
What’s different this time around is that Kaymer is nearly a decade younger than Woods, polished but not quite refined. His best golf could still be ahead of him.
Kaymer might have been here even sooner if not for some emotional and physical bumps along the way.
His mother died in 2008, just three weeks after Kaymer won the BMW International Open in Munich. A year later, he won the French Open and Scottish Open in consecutive weeks and had a shot at his first Order of Merit before injuring his foot in a go-cart accident and missing six crucial weeks.
Being No. 1 is not likely to alter his ambition.
“I want to go out and win tournaments. I want to compete, get myself in the last group on Sunday and feel that heat, preferably against the best players ever, so that I can compare myself,” Kaymer said. “And if I compare myself, I can see my weaknesses or strengths that I have, and I can move on and work on that.
“But it’s always the vision of getting better and winning more tournaments,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. And that is what I love to do.”