PINEHURST, N.C. – Martin Kaymer made his U.S. Open victory official Sunday, winning by eight strokes with a stunning score of 9 under par.
He really won it Friday, when he shot his second consecutive 65, setting an Open 36-hole record and distancing himself from a field tormented by Pinhurst No. 2’s umbrella greens.
Kaymer has overcome two years of self-inflicted struggles, caused by a decision to change his swing, to win The Players Championship and the U.S. Open.
So I asked him how he escaped his slump.
He looked at me like I had bent his favorite putter.
Kaymer won the PGA Championship in 2010. He rose to No. 1 in the world in 2011. Then he changed his swing and fell from No. 1 to 60-something.
When he heard a certain word, Kaymer, a German who speaks perfect English, acted like he needed a translator.
“Slump?” he said. “Slump is a tough word. I wouldn’t call it a slump.”
World-class golfers learn to stiff-arm reality, or what they would call negativity.
Fall 60 spots in the world rankings? Kaymer calls it a “learning process.”
Try to tweak the swing that took you to No. 1? Kaymer calls it “an adjustment.”
He’s like the lefty who throws an 88-mph fastball down the middle, sees it land 500 feet away, and says he made a good pitch.
Kaymer and those like him don’t just rely on the power of positive thinking; they spray aerosol repellant onto any airborne words that could create doubt, like gardeners trying to kill angry wasps.
“You read over and over again in newspapers, on Facebook, on all those golf web sites, is he ever going to come back?” Kaymer said. “Is he a one-hit wonder with a major win? It’s not nice to read, but you understand why people think like this. It’s quite normal. Which was just very nice for me that I knew deep inside that I never doubted myself.”
It’s the struggling athlete’s conundrum, and salvation: Retaining faith despite faith-sapping evidence.
The average human would have second-guessed changing a swing that brought him to No. 1. Kaymer either didn’t, or he blocked out the voices in his head that might have sabotaged his progress.
“I played very brave today,” Kaymer said.
He displayed more athletic bravery when he changed his swing after winning a major.
This Open was bookended by tributes to Payne Stewart, who won the 1999 Open at Pinehurst before being killed in a plane crash. On Thursday, Rickie Fowler wore Stewart-styled knickers. On Sunday, Justin Rose sank a putt on 18, just like Stewart did to win in ’99, then imitated Stewart’s fist pump.
Not long after that, Kaymer closed with an another homage to Stewart, a lengthy putt for par that clinched the championship.
During the week, Kaymer didn’t so much mimic Stewart so much as prove he’s no Michael Campbell, who won the 2005 Open at Pinehurst, then began the, yes, slump that landed him outside the top 800 of the world rankings.
Kaymer has won a PGA Championship, a Players Championship and a U.S. Open.
He also made the clinching putt at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, sparking the only exuberant reaction ever from a guy who smiles like there is a quota on the number of teeth he may display.
Four of the past five U.S Opens have been won by non-Americans. Rose said so many European players have moved to the United States that “geographically, a lot of us are now semi-Americans,” who have grown used to the large, loud galleries of American golf.
Kaymer lives in Arizona, but his latest victory put him in the same company as golf’s most famous Spaniard. Kaymer and Seve Ballesteros are the only Europeans under 30 ever to win two majors, 10 European tour titles and reach No. 1 in the world.
He thinks more about another Euro — his idol Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters winner from Germany.
“Now we have almost a German grand slam,” Kaymer said. “I hope this will make Bernhard proud.
“I know it will make Germany proud.”