PINEHURST, N.C. – He hit into pine needles, sand, and uncertainty, but Martin Kaymer came up with a few inventive if not miraculous shots, birdied 18, and minimized the damage with a third-round 72 to keep most of his big lead at the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 on Saturday.
Kaymer, who on Friday became the second fastest to reach double digits under par, dropped from 10 under to 8 under and saw his six-shot lead reduced to only five over two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler, each of whom shot 3-under-par 67 to get to three under par.
“I kept it very well together,” Kaymer said. Especially, he added, after he bogeyed three of the first six holes, when he began spraying his driver.
The feel-good story of the day was Compton, the Miamian who is on the third heart of his life and who’s still searching for his first Tour win.
“I knew something special was happening,” said Compton, who at 34 is playing in just the second major of his career. (He shot 77-81 to miss the cut at the 2010 U.S. Open.) “I’ve had a great year,” he said when asked if he was surprised by his play Saturday, which included an eagle and five birdies. “We’re playing against the same guys -- I just try to hit fairways and greens. It shouldn’t feel any different than any other tournament. I’ve been through a lot in my life -- a lot more adrenaline, pressure situations than hitting a tee shot on 18. Putting things in perspective may help me.”
Compton and Fowler were the only two to shoot under par on a course made significantly tougher by the lack of overnight rain and a course set-up that proved too much for some. The field average of 73.821 was a stroke higher than in the second round, and four players shot in the 80s.
“Greens were still receptive, but not as receptive as the first two days,” said Fowler, who took 24 putts to lead the field in that category. “And some of the pins were tucked more close to the edges. If you got it two paces in the wrong direction, you were off the green and quite a ways away than the shot actually was intended to be. I’m definitely pleased with how I played today.”
Players kicked up a cloud of dust with each swing, even from the fairway. Kaymer had trouble finding the short grass, four times driving into the native grasses off the tee. He almost made a complete mess of the par-4 fourth hole, where his tee shot wound up amid so many pine needles he had to call in an official. That did not go well, although the 29-year-old German was able to laugh about it afterward.
“The struggle was I didn’t understand the English the referee was trying to tell me,” he said afterward. “So I said to my caddie, ‘You need to take over here,’ because he speaks better English than me, even though he’s Scottish.” (Kaymer gave an impish smile as the scribes broke up laughing.)
After taking an unplayable lie, Kaymer got up and down from 160 yards to escape what seemed like a certain double-bogey. He hit his drive into the scrub again at the par-5 fifth hole, which led to his best shot of the day and probably the turning point of a round that was threatening to get away from him: a 7-iron from 205 yards to five feet for eagle.
After a turbulent start, he was back to 10 under. He came up with another amazing shot after missing his drive left at the 12th, another big shot from a marginal lie in the native area that sent his ball onto the green.
“Anything could have happened there,” he admitted. He made par.
There was no Saturday charge from some of the bold-faced names in the chase pack. Rory McIlroy, who started the day 1 under par, shot a front-nine 40. His bunker shot at the par-5 fifth hole failed to make it up a hill and rolled back down into the bunker. He made bogey. After trying to drive the green at the par-4 seventh hole, where the tee markers had moved up to make it play just 315 yards, McIlroy hit a great pitch to around seven feet but watched as his birdie try horseshoed around the hole and out.
McIlroy would sign for a 74 to drop to 3 over, and out of contention.
Keegan Bradley, who started the day 2 under par, seemed distracted by his red shoes and shot a dispiriting 76 to fall to 4 over.
Jordan Spieth never got much going and shot 72 to drop to 1 over.
Others still put up a valiant charge only to stumble late. Henrik Stenson was about to sign for a rare under-par round when he missed a three-foot par try at 18. He signed for a 70 and was at 2 under par, tied with Dustin Johnson (70) six shots behind Kaymer. Brandt Snedeker got to 3 under but bogeyed 11 and 12, then made a string of pars for 72. He was at 1 under. Kevin Na was 1 under on the day and 4 under for the tournament when he double-bogeyed the 14th and 16th holes. He shot 73 and was at even.
In the end Sunday will come down to Kaymer and whether he can stand prosperity -- a five-shot lead. He spoke of the dangers of playing too defensively, and the need to just go out and play and add it all up at the end. Asked if he’d ever slept on such a lead, he mentioned the 2008 BMW Open in Germany, where he recalled leading by six going into the last round.
“Obviously there was a lot of support,” he said, “and I didn’t want to disappoint the people. My lead was gone after 11 holes. So then the support of the people really helped, and I could fight back a little bit. I got into a playoff and birdied the first hole to win the golf tournament.”