A steely finisher even before the Players, Martin Kaymer is shredding the Open field

June 14, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C.—With two brilliant rounds of 65, Martin Kaymer has stripped away all the subplots at the 114th U.S. Open. It’s all about him now. If he can put together two more solid rounds this thing is over. He obviously has the game to do it. Over 36 holes Kaymer’s all-around virtuosity has been on full display. During a bogeyless Friday he ripped long, straight drives (12 fairways hit, not to mention driving the green at the par-4 3rd hole), precise iron play (a stunning 15 greens in regulation) and a molten putter. But sitting on a historic lead at the U.S. Open is a challenge more mental than physical, and this isn’t good news for his pursuers.

Kaymer was a courageous closer long before the gutsy finish in the gloaming at the Players last month reestablished the former world No. 1 as a front-line player. He had displayed an outsized fortitude well before the 2012 Ryder Cup; arriving there in the midst of a swing-change-induced slump, playing so poorly he was benched for all of the second day, Kaymer willed in an eight-footer on the 18th hole that won the Cup for Europe. Kaymer had displayed cool under fire long before his breakthrough at the 2010 PGA Championship, where a thinking-man’s layup in the playoff helped him trump Bubba Watson’s caveman golf. No, if you want some insight into how Kaymer is going to play this weekend, you have to go even further back into his career, to a series of events that molded him as a person and a player.

Kaymer grew up in Dusseldorf playing the Mettmann Golf Club, which was close enough to home that he and his older brother, Philip, would occasionally ride their bikes to the course. Almost from the beginning, their father, 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.

In his casual games with his sons, did Horst, a future senior club champion, use a tee when hitting driver? “Of course!” he says with a hearty chuckle. “It is much better that way!”

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Martin’s natural aptitude for the game was combined with an utter fearlessness about going low. During the second round of the 2006 Habsberg Classic, on the Germany-based EPD mini-tour, 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 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 ho-hum 62 to go 27 under for three rounds and—attention Pinehurst participants—win by 10 strokes.

In August 2006 Kaymer was promoted to the Challenge tour, Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit. His debut was to be a triumphant homecoming in Colon’, a 30-minute drive from home. On the morning of the first round, his mother, Rina, who had been in poor health, suffered a bad fall and was hospitalized for a battery of tests. Martin has a touch of Teutonic reserve but 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 law books and rushed to the course, where he found Martin on the putting green. “He was crying, 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.

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Rina was also the inspiration for what will always be the defining performance of Kaymer’s career, regardless of what happens the rest of the way here at Pinehurst. In 2008 she was nearing the end of a two-year battle with cancer, the diagnosis having come just days after Martin’s emotional triumph in Colon’. He considered skipping the BMW Championship in Munich 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 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 the week, and he methodically built a six-shot lead through 54 holes at Nord-Eichenried golf course, which was draped in German flags. On Sunday all the emotion finally waylayed 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 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, pured a 5-iron to 12 feet and buried the eagle putt to snatch the victory. Addressing the crowd afterward, Martin broke down in tears while dedicating the victory to his mother. A country cried with him. Rina was not well enough to travel to 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 two weeks later.

If Kaymer wins this U.S. Open he will join the most elite of company, as only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd can claim an Open, a PGA and a Players. He would also be the first to win the Players and the Open in the same year. Something tells me Kaymer will be up to the challenge.