Martin Kaymer is in a race to the top

Martin Kaymer is in a race to the top

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A go-kart enthusiast, Kaymer missed two months last fall after breaking his foot in a crash, yet still finished third on the European money list.
Robert Beck/SI

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 Düsseldorf,
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 Düsseldorf, 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 Düsseldorf.
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.”