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

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

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"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.

You 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?

Before 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.

You didn’t seem nervous on Sunday.

I 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.

After your win over Bubba Watson,
what was your night like? Huge party?

No, 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.

Celebrating 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.

Yes, 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.

You won the PGA Championship at
age 25. Is there any danger of having
too much success too soon?

You 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.

Hungry 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.

You missed the cut in each of your
three starts at Augusta. Why have
you struggled there?

Two 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.

This sounds like a major overhaul.

Yeah, 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.”

How’s it coming?

We’re getting there. I can hit the draw
once in a while—when the wind blows
right to left. [Laughs]

Given 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?

Yes, 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.

You began the 2011 season ranked
third in the world. Do you think Phil
would be irked if you became World
No. 1 before him?

If 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.

Is it true that the soccer-obsessed
German press basically ignored
your PGA win?

I 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.

Did 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.

That’s starting to change, right?

Now 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.

The German press was hard on
your play at the Ryder Cup, even
though you won 2.5 points.

I 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.

It 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.

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.

You 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.

You 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.

Maybe that’s why he hasn’t won a
major yet.

Maybe, but he’s still young, and he’s got
good people around him. He’ll be one of
the best one day.

Comparisons are often drawn
between you and Langer, but in truth
you’re not all that similar, right?

I 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.

Germans are often stereotyped
as being serious and calculating.
Do you fit that mold?

Easy 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.

One newspaper erroneously reported
that your father, who played pro soccer,
was also a pro boxer. What else has the
media gotten wrong about you?

You 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.

But 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?

I’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.

You must love taking your BMW on
the Autobahn.

Yes, 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.

What’s the fastest you’ve driven?

I don’t want to be a bad example, so let’s
leave that one alone. [Laughs]

A 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.'

They have a few names for me. It’s over
the top sometimes. I just smile, and I’m
happy that they write about me.

That’s a heavy burden. Are you ready
to accept the responsibility of being
a national hero?

To 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.

Last 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?

I would rather win a major. [Laughs] Because if I win a major, I automatically
become No. 1.