“Yo,” the scruffy-looking one-day pass holder barked across the barrier in the shadow of Doral Resort’s sprawling hub, “Who’s that?”
Um, Martin Kaymer . . . world No. 1, major champion and among a handful of favorites at the Masters despite having gone 0-for-3 in cuts made at the venerable Georgia enclave.
That the reigning alpha male may be relegated to wearing a “Hi, my name is . . .” tag while plying his trade part time in the United States this year is less of a surprise than it is a sign of truly strange times atop the world order. The 26-year-old baby-faced German has a grand total of 32 career start on the PGA Tour and, at least in some fan’s jingoistic eyes, Dustin Johnson’s major sitting atop his mantel.
But then the answer may have flummoxed “Joe Beer Tent” less than the simple truth the golf world is slowly coming to grips with, Kaymer is not renting the top ranking so much as he is settling into a long-term lease.
In the last 24 months Kaymer has seven global victories and has not had a weekend off anywhere since the 2010 Scottish Open . . . in July. He followed his PGA Championship breakthrough with a walk-off in his first tournament back, went 2-1-1 in his first Ryder Cup for Captain Monty and cruised to the European Tour’s Race to Dubai trophy.
The young man Nick Faldo let tag along at the 2008 Ryder Cup and preeminent caddie Fanny Sunneson quietly raved about has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Maybe even his own.
The moment hit Kaymer, like it normally does, at the corner of mundane and unexpected. It was a quiet dinner with his father, Horst, brother, Philip, and a close friend in a Scottsdale, Ariz., steakhouse. After the main course was cleared the kitchen delivered a special desert with “Congratulations, No. 1 in the world” etched into the icing.
“My dad and me, we were just looking at each other in a strange way and then we both thought I think the same thing; how cool it is to be No. 1,” Kaymer said. “There's no one else in the world who is better in the sport than you.”
If that kind of introspection seems a bit deep for a 26-year-old a year-and-a-half removed from a potentially career-ending go-kart injury it is the first of many misconceptions about the world No. 1 – preconceived or otherwise.
The “stoic German” label may sound plausible but any correlation between Kaymer and Bernhard Langer, the last German to hold the top spot some 25 years ago, stops at the passport.
“He is very far away from Bernhard, oddly enough,” said Kaymer’s manager Johan Elliot with Sportyard Management. “On the golf course they are similar, but other than that he is the perfect ambassador for the modern generation.”
Imagine a player hours removed from his first major victory, adrenaline still pumping, mind racing. Now imagine Kaymer huddled into a corner booth at an Illinois McDonald’s on his way from Whistling Straits to Chicago because, “It was the only thing open,” laughs Elliot. Now imagine that same young mind trying to come to grips with his dramatically altered path, and Kaymer’s answer to such an esoteric question says more than that finely-tuned game ever could.
“It’s not that (the PGA) didn’t matter, but he immediately started talking about what will define you is what you will do next,” Elliot recalls from the conversation in the Chicago-land fast-food staple.
If the knock against younger players has any validity, that success and money don’t breed hunger, then Kaymer is something else altogether – not young or even German by many measurements. A “world citizen” as Elliot figures.
Getting to know Kaymer is like pro golf’s version of “MythBusters.” His swing is more feel than technique, his sense of humor more Benny Hill than Bernhard Langer and his view of success rooted in the long haul more than the here and now.
The lion’s share of that grounding comes courtesy Horst Kaymer. The elder Kaymer’s youngest son, Philip, went on to become a lawyer. Martin world No. 1. That’s halfway to a parenting Grand Slam.
The good Kaymer stock separated Martin from the pack early. When he signed with Elliot and Sportyard Horst smiled, “I looked after him for 22 years,” Horst Kaymer told Elliot. “Now it’s your job.”
Easy work if you can get it.
Kaymer shunned equipment deals of any kind his first year as a pro because he wanted to give himself the best possible chance to succeed, not make a check. At 21 he won his first European Challenge Tour event by two strokes (Vodafone Challenge) the day after he learned his mother had cancer and would finish 2006 with two victories and a European Tour card. He won his first European Tour event in 2008 and has been closing on the top ranking ever since whether American fans noticed or not.
Not that he’s had much interest in the top spot. In fact, when he defeated Bubba Watson in the semifinals at this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship to wrest the mathematical chalice from Lee Westwood it was a relief more so than a reason to celebrate.
“Surreal, but nice,” was Kaymer’s first thought when asked about his new spot atop the world order at Dove Mountain.
Since then he’s settled into the title, if not the expectations. In a David Duval-esque moment at Doral he eluded to his thoughtful side, and a depth that goes well beyond a controlled fade that is more repeatable than an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” when asked how it felt to be the world No. 1
“Yeah, I'm happy, and I'm satisfied, but there's still something missing,” he said.
It will likely take a little longer for the American masses to settle into the unknown commodity perched atop the world roost. His schedule in the United States will be limited to 12 events this year because he decided, like Westwood and Rory McIlroy, not to take up PGA Tour membership.
“It just wasn’t the right time,” Elliot said.
Until that “right time” he may want to consider a “Hello, my name is . . .” tag. Or, he can just keep winning.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard