The sun was tucking behind some clouds into the western horizon over Pinehurst Sunday evening and casting a soft, golden glow over the proceedings just in front of the 18th green on the No. 2 course. If Martin Kaymer had turned and looked over his right shoulder, through the pine trees he could have seen the steeple of the Village Chapel a few hundred yards away; the chapel clarion was now softly pelting out eight notes at the top of the hour.
USGA President Thomas O’Toole stood at the podium and spoke of the previous champions at Pinehurst—of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead from the sepia-toned era and Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell from the modern epoch—and welcomed the newly anointed U.S. Open champion from Germany to the same heady fraternity.
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis marveled at how Kaymer’s 271 total and eight-stroke victory were forged not only with precise and consistent shots but the planning that went into each of them and the mental fortitude that helped him escape from the few dalliances with trouble he encountered over four days of No. 2.
“It’s fun to watch somebody not only execute that well, but think that well around the course,” Davis said. “And he really did both. His course management skills were just outstanding. And his execution was great. When he got into trouble, he fought himself out of trouble well.”
The drama with Stewart in the 1999 U.S. Open came on holes 16 through 18 in the final round as he was locked in a prize fight with Phil Mickelson in the final pairing. Both felt the warm breath of Tiger Woods on their necks up ahead. Stewart nailed a long par putt on 16, struck a 6-iron to four feet on 17 for a birdie and then followed with his 15-foot par putt on the home hole.
The drama with Campbell came on 14 on Sunday. Nursing a two-shot lead and facing an approach shot of just under 200 yards on the par-4 hole, Campbell was momentarily distracted by the roar to his left from the 15th green, where Woods had just made birdie and cut the Kiwi’s lead to one. But Campbell collected himself and nailed his 4-iron to 5 feet, made the putt and was never bothered again as Woods bogeyed 16 and 17 and finished second, two strokes back.
But the climax for Kaymer came on the 4th-through-6th holes on Saturday. After carding a record-setting halfway-point total of 130 shots, the championship was Kaymer’s barring a weekend collapse. On Saturday he drained a 15-footer for a great bogey on the 4th after a bad drive and taking an unplayable lie. He hit another wayward drive on 5 into the native sandy rough, drew a good lie and laced a 7-iron 205 yards to 5 feet for an eagle. And then on the long and difficult par-3 6th, he putted off the green and recovered for a bogey.
Three holes, three bad shots, even-par.
“If you make double bogey, it’s a tough one,” Kaymer said of the 4th hole. “It was a not good tee shot, so I didn’t deserve to make par or anything, but bogey would have been acceptable. So it was quite nice to save bogey there.”
“He’s a guy that is really tough. If you got him in a Ryder Cup match or coming down the end of a tournament, he’s probably a guy you would rather not face.” – Keegan Bradley
For the rest of the weekend, Kaymer continued his remarkably consistent play amidst the course that played some 7,500 yards and featured firm, fast greens and the newly restored roughs that served up clean lies in one case and thorny ones on the next. He hit 43 of 56 fairways, seventh best in the field. He hit 62 percent of his greens, 18th best. He took a third-best 110 putts and made the most birdies, 16. His driving average of 305.5 was seventh best in the field.
“He’s a guy that is really tough,” Keegan Bradley said. “If you got him in a Ryder Cup match or coming down the end of a tournament, he’s probably a guy you would rather not face.”
Kaymer joins Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods as the only wire-to-wire winners of the U.S. Open. He’s the first player from Continental Europe to win the Open, and his 8-shot margin ties Rory McIlroy’s domination at Congressional in 2011 for fourth-best victory margin.
He’s no stranger to the winner’s circle in major championships, having won the 2010 PGA Championship in a playoff at Whistling Straits, but Kaymer admits he wasn’t ready for the attention and pressure that come with waking up with golf’s elite.
“Four years ago I didn’t know what’s happening,” he said. “I was surprised. I was not expecting myself to win a major at 25. I was surprised about my performance.”
Since then he’s slumped, made swing changes, rebounded, clinched a European Ryder Cup victory in 2012 with a 6-foot putt on the final day and won the Players Championship in May. Just four other golfers in history have been ranked No. 1 in the world and won two majors before turning 30.
“To win one major is very nice, but to win two, it means a lot more,” Kaymer said. “Some friends, they called me ‘one-hit wonder’ with the majors, obviously in a funny way, and now I can go back and show them this one. So it’s quite a big proof to yourself that you cannot only win one, but you can win when it matters, you can win big tournaments.”
The resume grows by winning an Open at Pinehurst, casually rolling in a lengthy par putt on an 18th green where Hogan and Snead, Nicklaus and Watson, Stewart and Campbell have tread.
Kaymer addressed the crowd gathered around the 18th hole greens perimeter—they couldn’t use the putting surface itself as is customary, since there’s a U.S. Women’s Open to be played this week—and was then dispatched by USGA staffers to a photo session. Mike Davis reflected on the two storylines from the week—the golf course and Martin Kaymer.
“The restoration was a special part of the week, but also watching someone play golf about as good as you could play,” Davis said. “I’ll remember how good the golf course was and how good Kaymer was. He executed beautifully. He thought beautifully. I walked with him the last two days, and to watch his course management and his execution was just brilliant. We should celebrate what Martin Kaymer did this week.”