The eyes on the Donald Ross statue behind the clubhouse at Pinehurst No. 2 didn’t narrow menacingly with Martin Kaymer walking up the 18th fairway Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open.
It only seemed that way.
Kaymer’s 5-under-par 65 wasn’t just good for the lead after day one of the championship. It was the lowest round posted in three U.S. Opens staged on the classic course Ross built here in the sandhills region.
With the leaderboard jammed tight all day long, Kaymer pulled away with a flurry on the back nine late in the afternoon. He birdied three of the final five holes to take a three-shot lead on Kevin Na, Graeme McDowell, Brendon de Jonge and Fran Quinn.
“It’s a tough golf course, I just played really well today,” said Kaymer, 29. “I didn’t make a lot of mistakes. I hit a lot of fairways, and I hit a lot of greens.”
For a guy who couldn’t seem to get comfortable when he was the world No. 1, Kaymer is looking awfully comfortable as he seeks to win his second major championship. He’s looking comfortable of late on some of the most uncomfortable courses in the world.
Kaymer broke through to win the PGA Championship in 2010 at Whistling Straits. Six months later, he ascended to No. 1 in the world rankings, reigning there for eight weeks before he began to struggle with his swing and then his confidence. They’re both coming back in a big, bold wave, but Kaymer isn’t making too much of it.
“It’s the first round of a very, very important tournament,” Kaymer said. “I’m trying to win as many majors in my career as possible. I won one so far, and I put myself, so far, in a good position here, but we have three rounds to go.
“The golf course will change a lot. You have to adjust a lot more. So, that first round is a good start, but that's it. There's nothing more than that.”
Kaymer won The Players Championship last month on Pete Dye’s diabolical design at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Kaymer looked comfortable on that claustrophobic track with all that trouble around him. He looked comfortable again Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2.
“He played great,” said Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner. “He hit the ball in the fairway all day. It was an impressive round, one of the best rounds I've seen, for sure.”
Pinehurst No. 2 was set up so severely in the practice rounds this week. It was slightly softened before the first round, but it wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.
“Yesterday, I got asked what score I would take on Sunday afternoon, and I said plus 8, because of the way the golf course played on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Kaymer said.
Bradley, who shot 69 alongside Kaymer, thought Thursday’s setup was a terrific test.
“It's the best setup I think I've ever played,” Bradley said. “If you hit the ball in the fairway, you can attack and you can make birdies right now. But if you hit the ball in that
waste, even if you've got a good lie, it's hard to hit a good shot.”
Kaymer acknowledges he has learned a lot about himself in his rise and fall as No. 1. He has been quite honest about how he struggled getting comfortable as a major championship winner and a world No. 1. He is candid about how he struggled with the critics who doubted his worthiness atop the world rankings.
“I can understand why they did, because there was not much success after I became the No. 1 in the world,” Kaymer said. “It was understandable for me, but at the same time, it was quite funny, because I knew that it's just crap. I was very secure about myself. I knew what I was doing, and I had a lot of trust in the people that I work with, and there was never any stress.
“So I was very fortunate to be in that position, to experience that, the highs and lows. I'm sure there are going to be other lows in my career at one stage, but I can accept it a lot better.”
Still, Kaymer would prefer to accept a U.S. Open trophy come Sunday.
-- Randall Mell, GolfChannel.com