SOUTHHAMPTON, Bermuda – Every player gets there at their own pace, but the reality of joining the game’s most exclusive club assures they all eventually arrive at the same destination.
For Graeme McDowell, the gravity of his status as a newly minted major champion caught up with him as he made his way up the Old Course’s third fairway during the first round of this year’s Open Championship, of all places.
While Martin Kaymer, who at 25-years-old seems soulful beyond his years and stoic exterior, seemed to arrive at the inevitable perched atop Port Royal Golf Club’s scenic 16th tee box on Tuesday.
Toward the end of the first round at this week’s PGA Grand Slam of Golf, the German inched quietly over to the cliff overlooking the blue-green Atlantic Ocean and was immediately consumed by the moment and lost in the one place any sports psychologist worth a retainer fee will tell you is dangerous territory during tournament play.
Later Tuesday evening, TNT analyst Jim Huber announced at the Grand Slam champion’s celebration, “Welcome to the club. Only major winners need apply.”
But Kaymer – not exactly looking very majorly dressed in a sweeter and tennis shoes at the formal gathering but sporting the proper credentials nonetheless – had already arrived hours earlier on a windswept par 3 with a picturesque panorama as his muse.
“That was one of those moments where you realize you've made it. You’re a winner. You're playing with a three-time major winner, Ernie Els, David Toms who won the 2001 PGA Championship,” Kaymer said. “It takes some time to realize. It's not normal what I've done the last few years, especially this year.
“It was just one of those moments where you think about it.”
In Kaymer’s defense, nothing about winning majors is normal. At least not to anyone not named Eldrick.
And at least the rail-thin PGA champion got “lost” in the moment at a “Silly Season” event where the worst-case scenario is a tie for third and a $225,000 consolation prize. McDowell arrived at his epiphany moment three holes into the Open Championship, easily the most important stroke-play event for a Northern Irishman and hardly a course that forgives lapses in concentration.
“Hit me right in the middle of the forehead. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I can remember welling up a little bit. When you're out there trying to switch on the golf mode, trying to get focused, all of a sudden it just kind of comes crashing in, what you achieved,” the U.S. Open champion said.
“An epiphany is a good way of describing it. I definitely had one of those during the first round of the British Open, it just kind of smacked me.”
Membership in the game’s most exclusive fourball has a way of sneaking up on you like that.
There have been 70 first-time major winners since 1979, the year the PGA of America held the first Grand Slam, and there’s a good chance the two-day Silly Season staple served as an unofficial coming out for more than one member of the club.
Zach Johnson said his major moment didn’t arrive until he returned to Augusta National and took a seat at the annual champion’s dinner following his 2007 Masters victory. But for many a champion a combination of late-season timing and exclusive, major-champions-only company makes the Grand Slam the logical and logistical favorite for the inevitable Grand Slam epiphany.
It’s where Els first came to emotional terms with the notion that he was no longer just a “good player” with a syrupy swing but a great one with a major on the mantel.
“I remember playing at Poipu Bay (Hawaii in 1994). I played with Greg Norman and Nick Price, two of my heroes,” Els said. “(Kaymer) is only 25. (McDowell) I think just turned 31. They're very young, have their whole careers ahead of them. You can't blame them to really feel on basically cloud nine. That's where they are at the moment. Especially (Kaymer), he has had an unbelievable year.”
Inevitably freshly-crowned major champions are asked in the hectic moments after winning if, “It has sunk in,” and almost inevitably the answer is “no.”
How could it? With the rush of competition and the emotions of trying to close out a Grand Slam still fresh most players, particularly first timers, become swept up in the haze of victory. The nearly non-stop flow of the competitive calendar all but guarantees that reflection is relegated to the post-season, or the Grand Slam.
“It's daydreaming, reflecting,” McDowell said. “You work so hard, you're out there, you're focused, it's hard to have that emotional outburst right afterwards. I think it kind of creeps up on you. It did with me.”
Like most watershed emotional moments it “creeps” and then it clobbers without warning. And whether you’re on the third hole at St. Andrews or the 16th at Port Royal the message is always the same, welcome to the club.