Germany's Martin Kaymer is poised to become a bona fide superstar

Thursday February 10th, 2011
"You have to enjoy life off the course," says Kaymer, "to be happy on the course."
Brian Smith

Three things that don't easily impress Germans: sports cars, chocolate cake, golfers. "Golf is just some sport in Germany," says Martin Kaymer, a Düsseldorf native and the most promising talent to emerge from Deutschland since a mulleted blond named Bernhard Langer won two green jackets. "It's not very highly rated." Kaymer, 26, is changing that. In 2010, he won four times, including the PGA Championship. He not only forced golf into the headlines in Germany but also earned a nickname from the German press: "Golf Gigante." It's impressive stuff for a player who was virtually unknown five years ago, but don't expect the praise to go to his head. Kaymer's still hungry—for more Ws, for the No. 1 world ranking, for redemption at Augusta National (he's never made the cut). We caught up with the globetrotting German in sunny Bermuda, where he was looking forward to hopping on a Jet Ski. That's Kaymer—from golf to life to the Autobahn, he moves quickly.

\nYou didn't waste much time in 2010, winning the PGA, the KLM Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in three straight starts. Did you feel a surge of good play coming on?
\nBefore the PGA I played very good golf, but I didn't score very well. But [my mindset] changed after the PGA. I won the golf tournament, and the way that I won the golf tournament was different. To win in a playoff made it more satisfying.

\nYou didn't seem nervous on Sunday.
\nI was getting more nervous [on the back nine, in regulation.] That [15-foot par] putt I made at 18 was big for me. And when I got into the playoff, I don't know why, but I was totally relaxed, not nervous at all.

\nAfter your win over Bubba Watson, what was your night like? Huge party?
\nNo, there was a lot of media and interviews. My girlfriend [Alison Micheletti] and I were flying out the next day for a holiday. We drove [to the airport] late that night and had dinner at McDonald's. A big Mac and nine Chicken McNuggets.

\nCelebrating in style! Looking back at that week, you seemed very poised under all that major pressure. You've said that your mother's death in 2008— she died two weeks after you won the BMW International in Germany— changed the way you think about golf.
\nYes, my mentality has changed over the past couple of years because I know that golf is not the most important thing. A lot of people take golf too seriously. There's no need to get frustrated too much. I'm not happy if I lose a tournament or make triple-bogeys, but golf isn't life or death. I'm not getting as frustrated as quickly as I did two or three years ago. I'm playing freer.

\nYou won the PGA Championship at age 25. Is there any danger of having too much success too soon?
\nYou would think after winning the PGA, the Ryder Cup and winning at the home of golf, St. Andrews [at the Dunhill], I should be the happiest man in the world. I'm healthy, I have a great family, I have a lot of success. But I'm not 100 percent satisfied with what I've achieved. I want to win more. I'm still hungry.

\nHungry for what?
I never play well at the Masters. That's a big thing. You play that course every year, and I think I can prepare for that.

\nYou missed the cut in each of your three starts at Augusta. Why have you struggled there?
\nTwo big reasons. In the first couple of years, my short game was never good enough. It was last year, but the other problem is I really struggle to shape the ball right-to-left. My natural shape is left-to- right, and on that course you have to hit a draw. That is what I've been working on with my coach [Günter Kessler]. It's very frustrating when you're over a ball and you know that you cannot hit that shot.

\nThis sounds like a major overhaul.
\nYeah, I sat with my coach and asked him how long it's going to take. He said, "I don't want you to suddenly make a dramatic theoretical change. This should be step by step, because I still want you to play good golf. We can work on this the entire year."

\nHow's it coming?
\nWe're getting there. I can hit the draw once in a while—when the wind blows right to left. [Laughs]

\nGiven that golfers don't get much attention in Germany, is there less pressure on you than, say, Phil Mickelson, as you battle for No. 1?
\nYes, especially for Mickelson. First, his private life is in tough shape with the health of his wife and his mother and himself [Mickelson announced last year that he has arthritis]. Every week [in 2010] it was reported that he had to finish top-14 or 21st by himself or whatever [to become No. 1]. So if you hear that all the time, it becomes your goal even if you don't want it to be.

\nYou began the 2011 season ranked third in the world. Do you think Phil would be irked if you became World No. 1 before him?
\nIf there's somebody in the world who deserves to be No. 1, it's Phil. Because of Tiger, it was very difficult in the past. But Phil played so well over the last 10 or 15 years—he really deserves it.

\nIs it true that the soccer-obsessed German press basically ignored your PGA win?
\nI wasn't home at the time. I was on vacation [in Jamaica] with my girlfriend, so I didn't follow it. I wanted to get away from golf for a bit. I read a few papers here and there and I watched the Golf Channel—it was a big win for me!—but, yes, I heard that the interest in the German media was not the same as in other parts of the world.

\nDid you resent that?
Golf is just some sport in Germany. It's not highly rated like tennis or soccer. The percentage of Germans who play golf is not very high. So I was not very surprised that my win was not big in the media.

\nThat's starting to change, right?
\nNow that I have a chance to become No. 1 in the world, yes, people talk about me like I could be the next Boris Becker. What he was in tennis, I could be in golf. It's great to see that the German media is getting into golf. On the other hand, it's a lot of pressure on me. But I see it as a positive. If I can make the sport more popular in Germany, that would be very satisfying.

\nThe German press was hard on your play at the Ryder Cup, even though you won 2.5 points.
\nI wouldn't say they gave me a hard time— they just told the truth. I never played my best that week. I made a few great putts, but I was never happy with the way I played. The [media] said the truth.

\nIt was your first Ryder Cup. Did the pressure get to you?
I was not only playing for Germany—I was playing for all of Europe. It's a different kind of pressure. When you see the captain, Colin Montgomerie, walking next to you, and you're 2-down or 2-up and you make a bad bogey, you have different thoughts. It took me a while to get used to that.

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Your English is excellent. Were you a good student growing up?
I was average. I was more focused on sport, because that was my passion and my life. Everybody played soccer—I did as well— but when the guys at school figured out that I also played golf, it was difficult. They couldn't understand it. In Germany, golf is known as a very exclusive sport for rich people. My family was not rich, but it took [my friends] a while to realize that.

\nYou played on a pro soccer team's developmental squad until you were 15. Why did you give up soccer?
When you play soccer, you have 10 other guys, and you need some luck to be successful. In golf, yes, you need luck, but it's all on me.

\nYou said last year that your game 'looks different' from that of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and the other hard-charging twentysomethings. How so?
Let's take McIlroy. I've played with him a few times, and he plays so aggressively, so fearlessly. I wish I could have some of that, but he goes for every flag. It doesn't matter if there's water, a bunker, out of bounds. I don't know if it's good that I [lack that mentality], but the way they play, especially McIlroy, is very different from me.

\nMaybe that's why he hasn't won a major yet.
\nMaybe, but he's still young, and he's got good people around him. He'll be one of the best one day.

\nComparisons are often drawn between you and Langer, but in truth you're not all that similar, right?\nI see him just twice a year—at the Masters and at Munich [at the German Open]. I cannot compare myself with him. We are different characters, different people. What he has done for German golf, though, is incredible. He inspired me as a teenager, and hopefully I can do the same.

\nGermans are often stereotyped as being serious and calculating. Do you fit that mold?
\nEasy now! [Laughs] I think we're very organized people. We like to do things properly. There was actually a story that Montgomerie told us about when he played with Langer at the Ryder Cup. Langer was walking the course taking all the measurements, and Montgomerie asked him for a yardage on one hole. Langer says, "Do you want the distance from the front of the sprinkler head or the back?" We are very controlled people. Or I am.

\nOne newspaper erroneously reported that your father, who played pro soccer, was also a pro boxer. What else has the media gotten wrong about you?
\nYou wonder, "Where are they coming from? Why do they write those things?" But I think it's funny, and I love it. Recently I read that one of my hobbies is windsurfing. I've never done that in my life! I wouldn't even know how.

\nBut you are a bit of a daredevil. You love racing go-karts, and earlier today your girlfriend mentioned that you wanted to try Jet Skiing. Do you bungee jump, too?
\nI'm not a bungee jumper. And I would not jump out of a plane—unless I had to. [Laughs] But I love to do all those [other] things. You don't have to go crazy. In 2009 I had that go-kart accident [Kaymer broke three toes and missed two months of the season]. In school I was wild. I've gotten more careful, but you have to enjoy life off the course to be happy on the course.

\nYou must love taking your BMW on the Autobahn.
\nYes, that's one of the best things we have in Germany—drive as fast as you want. Sometimes I get mad at the Americans because of the way they drive.

\nWhat's the fastest you've driven?
\nI don't want to be a bad example, so let's leave that one alone. [Laughs]

\nA German sportswriter recently wrote, '...with Kaymer, it's like a star has risen, a new sports hero for Germany. We call him Golf Gigante—golf giant.'
\nThey have a few names for me. It's over the top sometimes. I just smile, and I'm happy that they write about me.

\nThat's a heavy burden. Are you ready to accept the responsibility of being a national hero?
\nTo become successful in your career, you've got to think about whether you want to take on that role. I can make a lot of people happy with the way I play golf, and maybe I can inspire them to play golf or sports in general. That's the best thing I can do. It's not always about yourself.

\nLast question, so we're gonna put you on the spot. Looking ahead to 2011, would you rather win another major or become the World No. 1?
\nI would rather win a major. [Laughs] Because if I win a major, I automatically become No. 1.

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