Martin Kaymer is in a race to the top
There are many reasons to believe Martin Kaymer can win the 74th Masters. None are bigger than the numbers: He has risen to eighth in the World Ranking on the strength of five victories in the last 27 months. The retrofitting of Augusta National means that the Masters is no longer merely what Johnny Miller used to derisively call the "Augusta Spring Putting Contest," but the treacherous greens remain the course's most feared defense, and in 2009 Kaymer finished second on the European tour in both putts per round and putts per greens hit in regulation.
Then there's the gumption he displayed earlier this year at the Abu Dhabi Championship, where after holing a 15-footer to save par on the 71st hole he arrived on the par-5 home hole tied with Ian Poulter and a stroke ahead of Rory McIlroy. Kaymer smashed a drive well beyond his world-class adversaries and, from 276 yards out, followed with a laserlike three-wood to the heart of the green. Door slammed. "Nothing seems to faze him," marvels McIlroy.
For all that there is to like about Kaymer's game and guile, there is a more personal reason to fancy his chances at the Masters: This will be the first time he'll be playing Augusta National in front of his father, Horst. Family has been at the heart of all of Kaymer's triumphs in the game, and more than a little tragedy too.
Kaymer, 25, grew up in DÃ¼sseldorf, Germany, playing the Mettmann Golf Club, which was close enough to the family home that he and his brother, Philip, who is two years older, would occasionally ride their bikes to the course. Almost from the beginning Horst compelled the boys to play from the tips on a 6,700-yard course, and he forbade the use of a tee even when they were wielding drivers. "He wanted to make it more challenging for us, so when we were allowed to use tees in tournaments, hitting the driver would seem easy," says Martin.
Did Horst, a future senior club champion, use a tee during casual games with his sons? "Of course!" he says with a hearty chuckle. "It is much better that way!"
Martin and Philip both displayed a natural aptitude for the game, and they pushed each other to get better "Never competitive, always supportive," says Horst. He and his wife, Rina, extracted a promise from the boys that they would not compete against each other in tournament play, but as teens Martin and Philip secretly entered a club championship on opposite sides of the match-play bracket. The night before they were to meet in the final they broke the news to their parents, who put aside their annoyance and followed their boys, cheering lustily. The match was all square arriving on the 18th hole, a tough par-4. Martin reached the green in regulation, while Philip missed it and had to chip up, giving his baby brother a putt for the victory. Martin proceeded to four-whack, handing the title to Philip. "It is a favorite story in our family," says Philip. "It is useful when we are, as you say in America, talking s---."
Martin survived the embarrassment and went on to win a number of regional tournaments, and by his late teens he began to entertain notions of playing professionally. He was scared to death to tell his father, a longtime corporate executive who had always made clear to his sons that he expected them to become respectable white-collar professionals. "Philip had too much brains to be a golfer, and law school was the right choice for him," says Martin. "I remember I was so nervous to tell my parents of my dream, but from the very beginning they were suppor tive." He turned pro in 2005 and entered European tour Q school that fall. In a showing of solidarity, Philip also plunked down the entry fee to play alongside his brother in the first stage. "He finished last, I finished first, so. . . ," says Martin, grinning. It was this result that sent Philip to law school.
After failing to make it through the final stage, Martin landed on the European Professional Development mini-tour. During the second round of the 2006 Habsberg Classic, he parred the 1st hole, bogeyed the 2nd and then played the next 16 holes in 14 under to shoot a 59 that in Kaymer's mind should have been lower. "I'm still annoyed that I parred the 17th hole, a really easy par-5," he says. More impressive than the 59 is that he threatened to do it again the next day, eventually settling for a 62 to go 27 under for three rounds and win by 10 strokes.
In August 2006 Kaymer was promoted to the Challenge tour, Europe's equivalent of the Nationwide circuit. His debut was to be a triumphant homecoming at the Vodafone Challenge near DÃ¼sseldorf, a 30-minute drive from the Kaymer family home. On the morning of the first round Rina, who had been in poor health, suffered a bad fall and was hospitalized for a battery of tests. Martin, normally reserved, is openly emotional when he talks about his mother.
"When I heard that she was in the hospital, I didn't want to play golf," he says. "It was like I had no fight in my body. I didn't care about golf. All I could think about was my mom."
Horst was supposed to caddie for Martin, but from the hospital he implored Philip to take over his duties. Philip put away his books and rushed to the course, where he found Martin on the putting green.
"He was very upset, saying how worried he was about mom," says Philip. "It sounds a little cold, but I told, him, 'Listen, brother, it will not do our mom any good to have us sitting by her bed looking sad with tears in our eyes. Every parent wants their child to do their best and achieve their potential. So go out and play hard and make Mom proud. That is the best thing you can do for her.' And he straightened up and said, very slowly, 'O.K., then I will win this tournament for her.' After that he played with more focus than I had ever seen from him."
During the second round Martin made seven consecutive birdies. Side by side, the Kaymer boys won the tournament, and they presented the trophy to their mother in her hospital bed. "I really played that tournament more for my family than for me," says Martin. "I give Philip so much credit for that victory. It is an amazing thing he did for me, because if I did not play and did not win, who knows where I'd be now?" Kaymer won again shortly thereafter and earned a promotion to the big leagues for the 2007 season.
At the outset of his rookie year he felt disoriented and homesick during the Euro tour's far-flung swing through Asia. Once again Philip rode to the rescue, negotiating a leave from law school to serve as caddie and companion for his brother, beginning at the Indonesia Open in Jakarta. Through 14 holes of the second round Martin was tied for fourth, but he got a little too excited and followed with three straight bogeys. On his 36th hole he faced a 200-yard carry over a water hazard and chose a five-iron. "The shot went about 120 yards, into the middle of the lake," Martin says. "I was too nervous and antsy, and I rushed the swing and hit a terrible shot. For the rest of my career, whenever I am facing a pressure shot, I think of that one swing and it forces me to slow down and relax and focus on my fundamentals." It was a costly lesson; he triple-bogeyed the hole to miss the cut by a stroke, his fifth consecutive missed cut to start his rookie year.
But Kaymer is a tough, stubborn kid, and he patiently put together a fine season with five top seven finishes to become the first German to win the Sir Henry Cotton rookie of the year award. Despite many entreaties, he played that season without an agent, relying on his parents to handle all of his off-course affairs. "I might have been leaving a little money on the table," he says, "but when you have a team like that behind you, it is easier to play your best."
He also had a valuable adviser in Fanny Sunesson, whom Philip calls "the famous caddie lady." In various conversations Martin alternately refers to Sunesson as his coach, manager and friend. They got to know each other during his amateur days through Sunesson's work with the German Golf Federation. "I seek her advice on pretty much everything," says Kaymer. "She is very, very smart not only about the correct way to play golf but also the business side of the sport and the difficulties of being a touring professional." Sunesson guided Kaymer to a real agent, the highly capable Johan Elliot of the boutique agency Sportyard, and a low-key professional caddie in Justin Grenfell-Hoyle.
During the first week with his new looper Kaymer won his 2008 European tour opener, the Abu Dhabi Championship. That summer he summoned the defining performance of his young career. By then Rina was nearing the end of a two-year battle with cancer, the diagnosis having come only days after Martin's emotional triumph in DÃ¼sseldorf. He had been considering skipping the BMW to spend every last minute with his mother, but she urged him to play. The pressure to perform in the fatherland is such that even the great Bernhard Langer, German golf's lone deity, never won the BMW, one of the European tour's flagship events. But Kaymer felt an eerie calm throughout that week, and he methodically, relentlessly built a six-shot lead through 54 holes at Munich Eichenried Golf Complex, which was draped in German flags.
On Sunday all the emotion finally waylaid Kaymer, and after hitting two balls into the water and making triple bogey on the 11th hole he was suddenly trailing by a stroke. Philip had been following on foot, but he retreated to the clubhouse, so painful was it to watch his brother's demise. But Martin kept scrapping and birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Anders Hansen. Before the first extra hole Philip sought out Martin and offered a quick pep talk: "Remember who you are playing for."
On the first extra hole, a par-5, Martin bombed a drive and had a six-iron left to the green. He thought not of his ailing mother but of the ill-fated five-iron in Jakarta a year earlier. He followed with a gorgeous shot to seven feet and birdied the hole to snatch the victory. Addressing the crowd afterward, Martin broke down in tears while dedicating the victory to his mother. A whole country cried with him. Rina could not be at the course, but she and Horst monitored the action from home.
"It was very, very emotional, and that is all I can say about it," says Horst, removing his spectacles to rub his eyes. Rina died a few weeks later.
Given how well Kaymer has played through family adversity, it would be natural to think that he is somehow immune to the pressure of tournament golf, but he admits to feeling overwhelmed at times as he has progressed into golf's big time. "If I am honest, in the past I was almost a little shy for the majors, maybe a lit t le scared," he says. "Perhaps I wasn't sure I belonged there and my golf was too defensive." In his first seven major championships including two trips to Augusta Kaymer missed three cuts and failed to finish better than 34th. He had a breakthrough at last year's PGA Championship, tying for sixth. "That was very important for me," he says. "It showed I can compete in the big events, if only I play my normal game." The lesson was reinforced with a tie for third at last month's CA Championship at Doral, Kaymer's best finish in America. So far.
Kaymer has spent the last few months with Georgia on his mind. Back in December he said, "We were already preparing for Augusta. Fanny" who won two Masters alongside Nick Faldo "has me hitting very specific shots for specific holes: lob shots that stop quickly, bump and runs to flags on a back tier. I need more options for my short game. I have a very consistent long game. The goal over the last year or two has been to improve my putting and my short game. I think I have."
Kaymer's all-around proficiency has impressed his peers. Says Aaron Baddeley, "He's a great player who is only going to get better because he works so hard at it. He does everything well and nothing really spectacular. But there are no weaknesses, which is why he's Number 8 in the world."
During Masters week Kaymer will benefit from the continued tutelage of Langer, the owner of two green jackets, with whom he has played a handful of practice rounds at Augusta. Langer raves about Kaymer's technique but is even more impressed with his maturity. "He has a good head on his shoulders," says Langer. "If he doesn't get distracted, he should be up there for a long time."
What kind of distractions might he be worried about? A year ago Kaymer established a home base in Scottsdale, playing out of Whisper Rock. Asked what he likes about the area, Kaymer says with a smile, "Great weather, great golf course, many beautiful women." But not necessarily in that order. Kaymer is clearly enjoying being a jet-setting bachelor. "I like American women," he says. "They are very open, easy to talk to, very straightforward. A little different from German girls."
Kaymer has throttled back on one of his other passions, go-kart racing. Last summer, shortly after a stretch of hot play that included back-to-back wins at the French and Scottish Opens, Kaymer was leading the Race to Dubai standings when he broke his left foot in a racetrack smashup in Scottsdale. Having grown up navigating the autobahn, he is still indignant about the accident. "It was a right turn, and the dumb guys in front of me hit their brakes, which they were not supposed to do," he says. "I struck the kart in front of me full power." It took two metal plates and nine screws to put his foot back together, and Kaymer missed two months of action, ultimately dropping to third in the final Dubai standings.
The time away from golf wasn't a total wash he taught himself to play the guitar and returned to Germany to spend time with his father and brother. Together, they launched MK Golf, a venture to help Martin maximize the bountiful business opportunities that have come with his meteoric rise. Horst is ostensibly retired, but he now works fulltime for his son. ("Ha! I work for him!" scoffs Martin.) Philip will take the German equivalent of the bar exam this spring and then become more immersed in his brother's affairs. "It is more comfortable for me to have them involved," says Martin. "They have always been a big part of everything I've done."
Horst has also become a more regular presence in Martin's galleries. His trip to this year's Tour stop in Phoenix was his first time in the U.S., and he is gleeful about his maiden voyage to the Masters. "I will make Martin breakfast every morning, and I will cheer for him every day," he says. "I have made him promise me that he will make the cut so we can enjoy the full week."
Always the good son, Martin smiles indulgently at his father's low expectations. "Dad," he says, "we will try to do better than that."