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Number 1 at No. 2

In the opening two rounds of the U.S. Open at historic, Pinehurst No. 2, Martin Kaymer did something that nobody is supposed to do at either the U.S. Open or at No. 2.  Twice.

29 year old Kaymer shot two sublime rounds of 5-under par, 65 that would be record breaking in so many ways.  His two-day score of 130 was the lowest opening salvo in the history of the Championship and his twin 65’s were the lowest scores of all the players on both days (another first).  The magnificent duo was the lowest opening two rounds in any Major Championship in history.  They were the lowest scores in the storied Major Championship history at America’s “home of golf” and were in every conceivable way, unimaginably brilliant. 

When Kaymer won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straights in 2010 and then ascended to be the World’s #1 ranked player a few months later, the young superstar from Dusseldorf, Germany seemed destined to become one of the game’s big stars.  And then he decided to change his swing.  Kaymer had always played a fade but determined that he wanted to draw the ball.  Kaymer then plummeted from the pinnacle to the ranks of the mediocre as he lost both his swing and confidence.

His renaissance began in early 2014 as he went back to his “old” swing and the shape of shots that he was comfortable with and as he admitted he “stopped thinking”.  That would all result in his win at last month’s Player’s Championship when he would triumph by one:   https://www.birdgolf.com/just-stopped-thinking/

In 2011 the famed golf course architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, restored No. 2 to play the way that Donald Ross had designed it.  No. 2, now without rough, but with sand and waste areas littered with fescue and native grass met with almost unanimous praise.   No. 2 is supposed to be played as a “links” style course which means not only with sand/waste areas to the left and right of each fairway, but also greens that demand perfectly placed approach shots.  Greens that are guarded by hollows and swales which will carry any slightly misplaced shot away to the meandering contours surrounding them. 

Kaymer’s 10-under par score would give him a 6-shot lead over Brendon Todd heading into Saturday’s 3rd round.  There were then a cluster of 17 players between even par and 3-under par that included World #1, Adam Scott, World # 2, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and American stars, Brandt Snedeker Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth.  That would leave a collective of 19 players at par or better at the hallway mark which was a great many more than most pundits would have predicted to start the week.

A key ingredient for such good scoring was that No. 2 had been softened on Thursday night when a half of an inch of rain had taken some of the lightning speed off the greens.   A dry Friday followed by an even drier Saturday combined with some wind, began to make the “turtle back” putting surfaces show their true colors.  The scoring on Saturday would reflect that in a sea of rounds on the wrong side of par.   

To emphasize the difficulty of No. 2 on Saturday, it would not be until the 25th two-some to finish that a player broke par.  That player was the enigmatic 25 year old Fowler who shot the day’s best round of 3-under par, 67 to vault into a tie for 2nd at 3-under for the tournament. 

In Thursday’s opening round Fowler had paid homage to one of his heroes, Payne Stewart, by wearing Stewart’s trademark knickers and argyle socks in a touching tribute.  Stewart, whose win here in the 1999 U.S. Open is immortalized with a bronze statue of him celebrating his winning putt.  The statue depicts Stewart with his right foot raised and his right arm extended in a victory celebration fittingly behind the 18th hole where it happened.  Fowler was 10 years old when Stewart lost his life tragically in a plane crash only 4 months after his win at Pinehurst.                

Fowler remembered hearing about the fatal crash on the radio when driving with his Mother and had this to say after his opening round: “Payne was one of my all-time favorite players.  I never had a chance of meeting him, but obviously loved watching him play and loved how he handled himself on and off the course.  Cool to be in the position I’m in to wear some attire like he used to wear to give tribute to him.”  Even cooler still was Fowler’s graceful tribute which he had spent months planning having only confided in a few members of his family and friends.

Matching Fowler’s low round of the day was 34 year old American, Eric Compton, who fashioned his own 3-under par-67 to tie Fowler in 2nd place.  Compton is also a story of inspiration having survived two heart transplants in his young life to pursue his dream of becoming a PGA Tour winner. 

A further shot behind at 2-under par were Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson who had managed to preserve their hopes with even par rounds, as is the wont of a U.S. Open.  Persevere, don’t self-destruct, and realize that you are not going “low” (with exceptions to Johnny Miller’s 7-under par at Oakmont or Tiger Woods’ 15-shot dominance at Pebble Beach in 2000 and the afore mentioned 65’s by Kaymer).

Kaymer became mortal in Saturday’s round and would record a 2-over par, 72.  That would be better than the average on this day so it would still leave Kaymer in complete control at 8-under par for the Championship and 5 shots clear of his closest challengers, but it had opened up a window of opportunity for those in pursuit.  The 114th edition of golf’s ultimate “survival test” would be his to win, or lose.

Sunday’s final round became a victory procession for the soft spoken, unflappable Kaymer, very early in the round as one challenger after another faltered while the steady German put on a clinic of “how to play with a big lead in the U.S. Open”.  He would offset bogies on #’s 7 and 10 with birdies on #’s 3 and 9 by playing completely within himself and never allowing No. 2 to extract a big score from him.

Back to back birdies on the 13th and 14th holes would give Kaymer an 8-shot lead over Fowler and the issue became not “who” but by how many. 

The how many turned out to be 8 shots (with a final score of 9-under par), over Fowler and Compton who would finish in a tie for second (and be the only other players under par for the week).

We have perhaps been remiss to overlook Kaymer during the last few years as we have searched for the successor to Woods as the next “great player” when more media-centric choices like, McIlroy, Scott, Johnson, Spieth and Fowler have captured both headlines and acclimation.  Sometimes however, it is the quietest voices that speak the loudest. 

Make no mistake; this win at this venue will be one that should be held in reverence forever.  It was complete and without question.  Great players win Majors in a fashion like this and for the last 4 days, we have seen greatness.