In February 2011, Martin Kaymer (pictured by Getty Images) lost to Luke Donald in the finals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, but in the process became the world’s top-ranked golfer. He was 26 years old, the second-youngest player at that time to ever hold that ranking. Only Tiger Woods had been younger.
Kaymer, however, was not ready. Not ready for the demands on his time, for the raised expectations, for the increased attention in his native Germany.
His place atop the world rankings lasted eight weeks. His tailspin lasted longer. He eventually separated from his caddie, Craig Connelly, feeling they were making too many mistakes. His confidence faded. It was his dark period.
It is now 1,204 days later. Kaymer – now 29 years old — has just won the second major of his career, going wire-to-wire to win the U.S. Open by eight strokes. Just seven other players have ever done that in U.S. Open history. The weekend at Pinehurst No. 2 was essentially a 36-hole coronation. There were no train wrecks at this weekend’s U.S. Open. Only a runaway train.
Despite having won THE PLAYERS Championship and the U.S. Open in back-to-back months, Kaymer is not officially ranked No. 1 in the world. That designation belongs to Adam Scott. Kaymer is expected to move to No. 11, but perhaps he’ll be No. 1 again soon.
And this time, he will be ready.
“It shouldn’t sound cocky or arrogant, but I knew it would come,” Kaymer said. “I knew that I would play good golf again. There was enough belief there.”
Actually, Kaymer is not back to where he was three-plus years ago. He’s better. Better than the Kaymer who was No. 1 back then. His game is better. Mentally, he’s in a better place. He’s having fun, and he’s shown it on two vastly different courses these past few weeks.
“He has more shots in his armory,” Connelly said. “His short game’s improved. He’s 3 years older. So yeah, he’s improved. Absolutely.”
Connelly was asked about his split with Kaymer back in 2011. It came just three months after Kaymer moved to No. 1, and less than a year after the German had won his first major, the 2010 PGA Championship.
For outsiders, it was a surprise move. For Connelly, it was reflective of the rising pressure on the young German.
“The tension was building up,” Connelly recalled. “Him being world’s No. 1 and wanting success every single time he got to the golf course. We all do.
“But, you know, that’s what we had to do. Obviously we’re together again. It’s been very, very fortunate to have worked out.”
Connelly jumped back on the bag in August of 2012. A few weeks later, Kaymer sank the decisive putt in his match against Steve Stricker as Europe retained the Ryder Cup with an improbable final-day comeback. He did not feel he belonged on the team, but that single putt – his ability to deliver in the most crucial of moments for any golfer – was the turning point for his return to elite status.
Before Sunday’s final round, Kaymer confided in Connelly. He told his caddie that the round would be the toughest he’s ever played. He was entering with a five-stroke lead, and the difficulty of protecting that on a pressure-packed Sunday at a major is enormous. Expectations were high – just like three years ago when he became No. 1.
Unlike back then, Kaymer delivered. He didn’t shoot 65, as he had done in each of the first two days. But his 1-under 69 was just as effective. He showed early that he was not going to wilt. He was not going to fold. This was a Tiger-like performance, a Rory-like performance.
And on the 18th green, after he sank another ticklish putt to save par, he gave a big hug to his Scottish caddie. Their working relationship has mirrored Kaymer’s career arc, and nothing was sweeter than this moment.
“He’s a very calm person, very happy, very positive person,” Kaymer said of Connelly. “… I think that combination, me being fairly serious, him being a little bit more relaxed, that works out quite well for both of us.”
“Winning a tournament is impressive, but winning it by a large number against the best players in the world, there’s obviously no word for it,” said Jason Day, who finished 10 shots back but tied for fourth. “Martin’s had a couple of down years just recently and through, I’m just guess, like a lot of the European guys, they work very, very hard on their game. They take it very serious.
“He struggled over the past few years and this year has been his breakout year again.”
Like his caddie, Kaymer considers himself a much better player now than back in February of 2011. A more complete player. The swing changes he made have worked. The approach to focus less on technique and more on feel has worked. Striving to have fun instead of striving for perfection has worked.
“It was just a matter of time,” Kaymer said. “It’s not a huge surprise to me that I played good golf. It’s just a surprise that I won such big tournaments. That’s a surprise. But I’ll take it.”
It’s certainly a surprise to win a U.S. Open by eight strokes. It’s the fourth largest margin of victory in the 114 years that the event has been played. Kaymer had to carry the pressure of leading since his opening 65 on Thursday afternoon and he really never gave anyone else a chance to think about winning.
“He kind of killed the event in the first two days,” noted Henrik Stenson.
In his Scottish accent, Connelly tried to put into words what it meant. It wasn’t easy.
“It’s not very often you see the likes of a runaway winner,” he said. “We’ve seen it with Rory at the PGA and U.S. Open. We’ve seen it with Tiger. But that’s seeing someone else do it.
“To happen to the person you’re working for, for it to happen to us – well, right now it’s still very raw.”
Well, he better get used to it. Martin Kaymer hasn’t officially returned to No. 1 in the world, but he’s sure playing like it.
Source: PGA Tour