PINEHURST, N.C. — Much like countryman Bernhard Langer, Germany’s Martin Kaymer personifies hard-boiled grace.
So much was expected of him after he notched his first major championship by surviving a sudden-death playoff with Bubba Watson to win the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits Golf Course.
Now, at 29, Kaymer still boasts an impressive list of credentials as the former top-ranked player in the world, capturing a Race to Dubai (formerly the Order of Merit) money title on the European Tour (2010); winning a World Golf Championship event (2011 WGC-HSBC Champions); and sinking the winning putt for the European squad to clinch the 2012 Ryder Cup.
He has even shot the magical 59 in a single round on the European Professional Developmental Tour.
But somehow over the past
two to three years, he got lost in the shuffle of great 20-something golfers, especially after he tried tinkering with his swing in an effort to be more productive at the Masters.
Welcome back. On a day when other golfers threatened to bust out on a softer, kinder Pinehurst Resort and Country Club No. 2 Course in the first round of the 114th U.S. Open on Thursday,
only to be reeled right back in, it was Kaymer who broke free late in the afternoon.
Kaymer’s 5-under-par 65 not only is the lowest single-round score recorded in three U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2, but it should be regarded as one of the finest opening rounds ever in this championship.
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf hold the all-time U.S. Open first-round scoring record with matching 7-under 63s at Baltusrol Golf Club in 1980. But frankly, that New Jersey layout isn’t the stiff test Pinehurst No. 2 provides.
“An impressive round,” said Keegan Bradley, Kaymer’s playing partner. “One of the best rounds I’ve seen, for sure.”
Kaymer held a three-shot advantage over four golfers: American Kevin Na; Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion; Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge, who has settled in nearby Charlotte; and veteran Fran Quinn. All of them shot 68s.
After that, the pack was tight. Thirty-five golfers were at par or better, and right in the thick of it.
Reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson (70) was one of them. He hopes to complete the career Grand Slam of golf by winning all four major titles.
Defending U.S. Open champion Justin Rose of England shot a 72 and was tied for 50th.
Maybe folks should have seen this coming with Kaymer, despite him coming off an extended down period.
One reporter asked him about that, calling it a “slump.” The golfer quickly corrected.
“You read over and over again, in newspapers, on Facebook and on all of those golf websites: Is he ever going to come back? Is he a one-hit wonder with a major win?” Kaymer said. “I knew deep inside that I never really doubted anything of what I am doing.”
He said he stopped “working on technique” in the middle of March. Two months later, he hoisted the winner’s trophy at The Players Championship.
Thursday, he separated himself from the group with a strong finish, knocking it close on the 14th hole for a short birdie.
At No. 16 — arguably the most difficult hole on the course — he hit a 6-iron approach pin-high, then trickled in a downhill
14-footer for another birdie to go to 4-under.
On the following long par 3, he hit another 6-iron tee shot, this time landing it 10 feet from the hole. He sank that putt, too.
“It’s always nice if you don’t think much about technique, and just focus on the main things — the yardages, where you want to pitch the ball and not thinking too much,” Kaymer said. “I see things very positive right now. There’s not much negative.”
Thunderstorms missed Pinehurst No. 2 late Wednesday night. But tournament officials decided to put water on the greens before play started Thursday morning.
Approach shots were holding on them, too — at least before noon, when the temperature rose significantly and the grounds began drying out.
In the afternoon, “you started to notice the color,” said 2014 Masters runner-up Jordan Spieth, who was tied for sixth with a 69. “You could feel it on your feet walking around the greens, really. It’s amazing. … It dried out very, very quickly.”
2-under a couple of times Thursday. But closing bogeys at the sixth and eighth holes left him at
even-par. He was tied for 16th.
“I had a chance to get to 3-, 4-, 5-under today had I made some makeable opportunities,” Mickelson said. “But I didn’t throw anything away on some of the short ones.
“This golf course is a course where I get a similar feeling that I get at Augusta where I don’t have to be perfect. I can miss shots. I can miss greens and still get up and down. I always have a chance.”