Pinehurst, N.C. — Doctor to patient: “Did you ever have this ailment before?” Patient to doctor: “Yes.”
Doctor to patient: “Well, you’ve got it again.”
Old joke, new analogy. We don’t need the Official World Golf Rankings to tell us what we’ve already seen this year. No matter what the numbers say, Martin Kaymer is our No. 1 player in the world.
Well, we’ve got him again.
We didn’t fully appreciate Kaymer the first time around. He won the PGA Championship in a playoff that was overshadowed by Dustin Johnson’s aversion to reading rules sheets. When he subsequently tried to make himself into a better player – the pressure of competitive golf, especially in the Tiger Woods Era – he lost his way. Out of sight, out of mind. The next thing we knew, Kaymer came in from the bullpen to sink a winning putt at the Ryder Cup and last month, he broke from the gate fast and rode a first-round 63 to victory at The Players.
This U.S. Open gives him two major titles. He’s halfway to the career Grand Slam, as is Rory McIlroy. He’s got two significant titles this year. Even bigger, perhaps, was the way he dominated at Pinehurst. He didn’t look like the best player in the game, he pretty much looked like the best player of all time.
At least, compared to everyone else.
We’ve seen quantum-leap performances like this a few times over the decades. Raymond Floyd and Jack Nicklaus at Augusta, Tiger Woods at all four majors, Rory at Congressional and Kiawah Island.
It’s always easy to get caught up in any player’s win because when he wins, he’s playing his best golf. Keith Clearwater looked unbelievable when he shot a pair of 64s on the same day and won at Colonial. But that was just one day, just one victory. This Open performance by Kaymer is part of a bigger trend and it puts what we thought we knew about the current state of golf on its ear:
–Phil Mickelson isn’t going to complete the career Grand Slam for at least another year, if ever.
–The assumption that Rory McIlroy is about to resume his throne atop golf doesn’t appear immiment, either.
–Adam Scott? He’s a very solid player who’s just missing a gear that Kaymer seems to have.
–Bubba Watson is a free spirit and a wonderfully creative feel player who is the antithesis of Kaymer, a classic technician and clearly a superior putter to the three men we thought were No. 1 candidates — Scott, Bubba and Rory.
Rickie Fowler or Eric Compton or even Henrik Stenson winning the Open would not have changed our notion of golf’s world order. Kaymer’s performance does. He just zoomed past the pack. That leaves the injury-plagued Tiger Woods, who is out indefinitely or until the British Open or until he tells us he’s playing somewhere else. We don’t now how quickly Tiger will get his game back or how much of his game he will ever get back. Maybe he’ll get back to last year’s five-win form, maybe he won’t.
This is one thing I remember about Kaymer from the first go-round four years ago, however. Watching him play at Whistling Straits and then watching the European Tour telecasts early on weekend mornings when he was playing events in the Middle East, I was impressed because I hadn’t seen anyone make so many 30- and 40-foot putts — and if they didn’t go in, they hit the cup and lipped out — since the early years of Arnold Palmer, when he was said to drain 30-footers as easily as checking out of a supermarket.
This is what I think sets Kaymer apart from our other top players, the putter. Scott has six more majors before he has to abandon his anchored putting style. McIlroy looks inspired at times and woefully inconsistent at others. Bubba is Bubba. Kaymer has a good stroke and a good touch and so far he’s been a steely-eyed assassin on the greens. The fact that he’s already got two-and-a-half majors in the bag (throwing you a bone here, PGA Tour, you’re welcome!) and a Ryder Cup moment gives him that much more confidence and that much less pressure than every other player under 40 except Rory.
Another player trying to win his first major has to fend off the thoughts of attaining golfing immortality while he’s trying to finish it out. Kaymer has already carved out his granite square. Now he’s just polishing up his Hall of Fame resume. We, the experts, did not see this coming. So many good golfers come along and win and then go away, never to be seen again, the one-hit wonders of the game, that it was easy to forget about Kaymer. Especially since he was a German and not someone like Phil or a marketing phenom like Rickie Fowler or a sentimental favorite like Erik Compton.
Kaymer tried to get better and he temporarily got worse. Now he’s back and his tee-to-green game is better, which packs a mighty arsenal when paired with his putting prowess. That detour is another advantage of his. He knows how he wants to swing and just as important, he knows from that experience a few more ways he doesn’t want to swing. That knowledge is significant.
Early this season we got excited about Jimmy Walker and his three wins and Patrick Reed and Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama and some other new faces and newer winners. Phil turns 44 on Monday, Tiger is pushing 40 and Rory, well, we don’t know what’s up with him.
So as golf observers, we’re in a bit of a rush to identify the next great player. After Pinehurst, we don’t have to rush anymore. Kaymer has identified himself for us.
Yes, it can be painful to rush to judgment.
Patient to doctor: “Doc, it hurts when I do that (bends leg).”
Doctor to patient: “Then don’t do that.”