PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Martin Kaymer dangles a small ball attached to a lanyard around his neck as part of his warm-up on the range.
He squeezes the ball between his forearms in a drill to make his swing feel more connected.
Three years ago, it might have felt like a bowling ball.
When Kaymer reigned as world No. 1 for eight weeks in 2011, he wasn’t prepared for the weight of the ranking.
It overwhelmed him.
He suddenly felt disconnected to his game. That’s mostly because he felt so unworthy of the top ranking, so uncomfortable with it around his neck. With a stock fade, Kaymer didn’t believe he was versatile enough to be considered the game’s best player. There were other issues, too. There were expectations that seemed impossible to meet.
“I didn't feel like the best player in the world, even though I was up there,” Kaymer said.
With a 3-under-par 69 Friday at The Players Championship, Kaymer’s name looms above everyone else’s again. At 12 under, overall, he leads the PGA Tour’s flagship event with the kind of form that rekindles memories of just how formidable he was winning a major championship and gaining that No. 1 world ranking.
With this run, however, a return to No. 1 is the furthest thing from Kaymer’s mind.
“The goal is not really to become No. 1 in the world again,” Kaymer said. “That is three, four, five steps more than you should go. I take it step by step.”
What is the next step for Kaymer?
“Try to win a golf tournament first,” Kaymer said. “I had a lot of good finishes. The way I played golf, I was very happy the last four or five weeks, especially, so the next step is just getting in contention, hopefully winning.”
Kaymer, 29, is looking for his first victory since 2012 Nedbank Challenge. The 2010 PGA champion is No. 61 in the world today.
“A lot of people think it's a good feel to be No. 1 in the world,” Kaymer said. “It makes you very proud. It’s nice to be up there, but it comes with a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations, from others, and, subconsciously, from yourself.
“So you need to find a way to manage that. You need to find your own way. Nobody can teach you that.”
Tiger Woods, of course, set such an impossible standard as No. 1. For Kaymer, there could be no escaping Woods’ presence, his record reign as No. 1. Who could measure up to all that Woods brought as the game’s best player?
Lee Westwood, Kaymer and Luke Donald almost felt like caretakers as successors to Woods’ abdication of the No. 1 ranking late in 2010.
“I learned quite a bit through that,” Kaymer said. “But it's always very difficult when people expect you to do very, very well every week, and you can't do very well every week. You can't win every week. As long as you know that, and don't try to please everyone, it's a lot easier to manage.”
So that’s what Kaymer’s doing this week. He’s managing expectations as much as he’s managing his game.
“I think, playing‑wise, there are a few players out here who can be No. 1 in the world,” Kaymer said. “But what I said earlier, it's very tough what comes with it. This week, there are four guys who can become the No. 1 in the world, and if you want to, or not, you think about it. At the end of the day, you only distract yourself, so you need to find a way that it doesn't affect you in the negative way.”