PINEHURST, N.C. – There must not be rain, because no one can account for that. But give the leaders of the U.S. Golf Association a dry golf course, and they turn into witches over a cauldron, brewing their stew.
For two days, Martin Kaymer was impervious to anything the U.S. Open had to offer – Pinehurst No. 2’s domed greens, its sandy waste areas, the pressure of a major championship.
Saturday, when the USGA needed to make the Open a contest again, Kaymer drank some of its brew before spitting it out, disgusted.
Kaymer still leads the 114th version of the Open by a healthy margin – five shots over Rickie Fowler, the flat-brimmed poster boy of golf’s next generation, and Erik Compton, the poster boy for those who have overcome all sorts of maladies, because he has endured two heart transplants and still manages to compete.
There was, too, nothing wrong with Kaymer’s third-round 72 Saturday, given that the USGA had turned into its sinister self. Thirteen players began the day under par. Today will begin with just six, led by Kaymer at 8-under 202, steadied by his only birdie of the day at 18.
I kept it very well together, he said.
His advantage, then, is precisely the largest 54-hole lead to be blown in the U.S. Open. Mike Brady held it then, back in 1919, and turned in a final-round 80. He lost to Walter Hagen in a playoff. That was before Kaymer’s time – and before the USGA could possibly hope to manipulate courses so precisely, dialing up the challenge if the tournament seems too easy, even for a moment.
USGA officials begin each Open week saying they have no winning score in mind. Yet when players attack the course early – as Kaymer did with a pair of 65s that helped him to the lowest 36-hole total in U.S. Open history and a six-shot lead headed into Saturday – they always find a way to tweak here and tug there, making a challenging golf course borderline infuriating. Saturday was one of those days.
Really tough, said Matt Kuchar, who shot 71 and is at even par for the tournament. You could hit a great drive, a great approach, trickle off a green and easily make a double. The pins were so tough. It was a tough test, not only skillwise, but mentally to stay in it and not let yourself get beaten up.
Such were the conditions that Kaymer, who made just one bogey in his first two rounds, made five on Saturday. The USGA needed a true tournament, not a will-he-collapse exhibition. So pins sat on ledges.
Today used almost all of the hardest pins they could possibly use – on almost every hole, said Jordan Spieth, who is 1 over.
They were conditions in which a leader – even a runaway leader – might have collapsed. When Kaymer hit his tee shot at the mile-long par-4 fourth hole well to the left of the fairway, the simple truth was this: Anyone interested in a competition rather than a coronation todayhoped he found serious trouble. Indeed, he did, his ball buried in pinestraw and sitting along a sandy area washed out by Wednesday night’s storms.
Kaymer asked for a ruling and held a lengthy discussion with USGA president Tom O’Toole, the official in his group. He could not move the ball, he was told. And after much deliberation, the German told O’Toole he thought it was unplayable.
If you have any idea how to play it, Kaymer said to O’Toole, smiling, I call on you.
Rather, he cleared out an area of pinestraw and dropped – taking a penalty stroke. Suddenly, he was hitting his third shot and had no angle to the green. Double bogey – and a real chance at bringing the field back to him – seemed in the offing.
Instead, Kaymer punched out from the pinestraw, knocked his fourth shot to 15 feet, and then calmly rolled in the putt. It was a bogey, sure, but oddly one that sustained him. At 8 under right there, his lead was still a gaping five strokes.
From the fifth tee, Kaymer then hit another drive left, this one into one of the waste areas filled with weeds and wiregrass that now define Pinehurst No. 2. He looked to be blocked out from reaching the green in two, with limbs hanging in his sight line. And yet, he pulled out an iron, took a strong swing through the plant aside his ball, and launched a brilliant shot that settled 4 feet from the flag.