You’ve heard of the West Coast Swing and the Florida Swing. Well, last week the Southern Swing wrapped up, five straight weeks of Waffle House fun. Bubba at Augusta — please. Matt Kuchar at Hilton Head, gagging on the 71st hole and holing that bunker shot on the next. Wild stuff. Seung-Yul Noh in New Orleans: Have you seen a prettier swing since Steve Elkington gave up golf for Twitter? Then came J.B. Holmes in Charlotte, showing all that love for God, family and driver. We’re still finding damp tissues between the sofa cushions.
Which brings us to the damnedest one of them all, last week’s Players Championship, played in the suburbs of Andrew Jackson’s Jacksonville. For 68 holes, Germany’s Martin Kaymer put on the most sustained, clinical exhibition of golfing excellence seen all year. But then came a Mother’s Day late-afternoon thunderstorm and everything changed. Kaymer spent most of the 90-minute rain delay in Tara, the chilled and large Sawgrass clubhouse, where the thermostat is set at 69°. He left cold.
At the resumption of play, our man from Düsseldorf was carted through the swampy humidity to the 14th green. He finished off a two-putt par, but then came 15. Kaymer, who fell off the face of the golfing earth in recent years as he overhauled his swing, played that straightforward par-4 with four off-kilter shots, a so-so putt and a tap-in for a double bogey, his first over-par score of the round. Not what you would have expected from the man who made the clinching putt in the taut 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. What a time to post a six. By that point, Jim Furyk was in the house, his 72-hole score of 12-under par signed, sealed and delivered. Kaymer’s double left him with a one-shot lead over Furyk, his only real threat. That is Furyk, and himself.
Three holes left. Everybody knew the deal: Three pars — or anything adding up to 12 or less on 16, 17 and 18 — would get Kaymer his first title on U.S. soil since he won the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. It was asking a lot. For one thing, since his PGA win, Kaymer has played nothing but mediocre golf in the biggest events. His countryman and golfing hero, Bernhard Langer, has played the last two Masters in a combined 578 strokes. He’s 56. Kaymer, who is 29, has needed six more. But more to the point, in the 13 majors since Whistling Straits, can you recall seeing Kaymer even once on TV on a Sunday? Probably not. The last three holes were not likely to be pretty.
Say what you will about the Stadium course, and if you’re on GolfClubAtlas.com you surely will. But that closing triptych, framed by all that murky water, is why the Players Championship is such a good TV show. Is it worth the $400 green fee the place gets from its regular paying customers? Take that up with your commissioner, who on Sunday sported a tie featuring floating island greens. But bear in mind that you’re also paying for the privilege of playing on a path cleared by Mark Hayes and Craig Perks, and also by Nicklaus, by Mickelson, by Woods. You’re paying for the privilege of hearing the staffers (following directives from their supervisors) use “course adviser” over ranger and “practice facility” over driving range. Where’s the mournful wail of the distant bagpiper?
The only music out of Sawgrass last week was metaphorical, the early drumbeat for September’s Ryder Cup in Scotland. Those matches will be contested on the PGA Centenary course at the Gleneagles resort, a track, designed by Big Jack himself, that would be right at home on the Ohio–West Virginia border. Based on last week’s play, that’s good news for the European team, because it’s hard to imagine a more American golf course than TPC Sawgrass, and never before has a Sunday leader board at the Players been so crowded with Europeans in their skinny pants.
Behind Kaymer, Sergio García of Spain birdied the last to finish solo third at 11 under. A shot behind García was Justin Rose of England, who graciously and wisely did whatever the rules officials told him to do, both on Saturday afternoon when they gave him the wrong ruling in a ball-movement situation and on Sunday morning when they corrected themselves and broke in the new HD-TV rule. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland finished a shot behind Rose, despite posting a front-nine 42 in the second round. Lee Westwood of England and Francesco Molinari of Italy finished at nine under too. That could be half the European team right there.
Thair-he-oh, as they say back home. It’s always a pleasure to see the Basque native playing well. Let’s hope García makes it to Gleneagles, because a Ryder Cup without him is a lesser event. Not just because of his press-tent candor and body-language expressiveness, but also because of the shots he plays. The caddies will tell you: If he’s not the best iron player in the game, he’s right there with McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and a healthy Woods.
Take Saturday at the par-4 10th hole. García’s tee shot finished in the fluffy right rough. The pin was back-right. He was playing into a helping hook wind, 176 yards to the hole. García’s 8-iron began about two yards left of the hole, faded about three yards, hit its apex and fell with the breeze one yard left of the cup. He kicked it in for a three. Half the field, or way more, could have stood at Sergio’s 176 mark and not even imagined that shot. The modern ball, hit hard with a lofted club from a flyer lie — you don’t know what it’s going to do. Most guys would aim for the middle of the green. Anyone who tells you the players are all about the same except for putting is mistaken. Some guys just have more talent.
Not that we’re diminishing putting. Because putting is golf’s most important talent. Thinking is a talent. Ruthless analysis of your talent is a talent. And Kaymer killed last week in those categories.
For his third shot on the par-5 16th on Sunday, Kaymer was 10 yards off the green and 31 yards from the hole. He putted because he lacked faith in his chipping. It was half a duff, and it led to a par when he should have had a short-range birdie putt. On the par-3 17th, he hit a so-so tee shot that was lucky to stay dry followed by a poor chip with his right foot almost on the bulkhead that holds up the island green. But then he drained a 30-foot putt like he was Jordan Spieth. It was the damnedest par of the year. On the par-4 18th, Kaymer’s second shot finished four yards short of the green and 14 yards from the hole. Again he chipped with a putter. This one was fair at best. You don’t want a 40-incher with $1.8 million on the line. But he rolled the putt right in — in the day’s last light, with the swamp critters rising. He had done it: par, par, par — a dozen shots. Then came the most interesting part. Kaymer made a lovely tribute to motherhood. He acknowledged his love of the Ryder Cup. He was poised and dignified, and it was all good. But the most telling thing was his ruthless self-analysis. “On 16 it’s not the right thing, to putt it — it’s a soft egg,” Kaymer said, giving us the German version for our wuss. “You have to chip that one. Even if you’re not the greatest chipper.”
They say you can’t fix what you can’t see. Well, this guy can see it. Martin Kaymer has already won three giant events: a PGA Championship, a Ryder Cup and now a Players. And he’s fixing to get better.