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. On 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 Open by a healthy margin — five shots over Rickie Fowler, the flat-brimmed poster boy of golf’s next generation, and Erik Compton, the resilient poster boy for those who have overcome all sorts of maladies because he has endured two heart transplants and still manages to compete.
And there was nothing wrong with Kaymer’s third-round 72 on Saturday, given that the USGA had turned into its sinister self. Thirteen players began the day under par. Sunday will start with just six, led by Kaymer at 8-under-par 202, steadied by his only birdie of the day at 18.
“You can’t play every day great golf,” said Kaymer, who has been both a major champion and the top-ranked player in the world. “Usually, you have one of those poor days at one stage during a tournament. But the important thing is that you keep that poor day still okay. And that is what I did.”
His advantage, then, equals the largest 54-hole lead to be blown in the 113 previous U.S. Opens. Mike Brady held it in 1919 and turned in a final-round 80, losing to Walter Hagen in a playoff. That was before Kaymer’s time — and before the USGA could possibly hope to manipulate courses so precisely.
“It would be nice if they make it difficult again,” Kaymer said.
Gear up, then. USGA officials begin each Open week saying they have no winning score in mind. Yet when players assault the course early — as Kaymer did with a pair of sterling 65s that gave him a six-shot lead heading into Saturday — they find a way to tweak here and tug there. The first two days produced 33 rounds in the 60s. Saturday? Two.
“Really tough,” said Matt Kuchar, who shot 71 and is eight back. “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 skill-wise but mentally, to stay in it and not let yourself get beaten up.”
Such were the conditions that Kaymer, who made one bogey in his first two rounds, made five Saturday. The USGA needed a true tournament, not a will-he-collapse exhibition. So pins sat on ledges. “I think today used almost all of the hardest pins they could possibly use — on almost every hole,” said Jordan Spieth, who’s 1 over. Balls landed on the greens, only to be repelled.
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 amidst trees left of the fairway, he faced the moment when that seemed possible. His ball buried in pinestraw and sat along a sandy area washed out by Wednesday night’s storms.
Kaymer, a German who speaks impeccable English, initially struggled to understand USGA President Tom O’Toole, the official in his group. He called in his Scottish caddie to translate. The result: He could not get a free drop, and Kaymer decided it was unplayable.
“If you have any idea [how] to play it,” Kaymer said to O’Toole, smiling, “I call on you.”
The penalty stroke meant 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.
“If you make double bogey,” he said, “it’s a tough one.”
Kaymer punched out from the pinestraw, then knocked his approach from 165 yards to 15 feet — and 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.
“Quite nice,” he said.
From the fifth tee, Kaymer hit another drive left, into one of the waste areas filled with weeds and wiregrass that now define Pinehurst No. 2. He pulled out a 7-iron to cover roughly 205 yards, took a strong swing through the plant aside his ball and launched a brilliant shot that somehow settled four feet from the flag at the par 5.
Thus, the eagle that pushed him back to 10 under. When he walked off the fifth green, his lead had actually grown from the start of the day to seven shots.
He couldn’t hold it there, not after he putted off the green for a bogey at 6, not after he three-putted for bogey at 13, not after he watched his tee shot at the par-3 15th roll back off the green for another bogey. But even with the witches’ brew concocted by the USGA, there was no disaster. His approach at 18 was pure, his eight-footer for birdie a final statement.
“It’s like a second tournament going on,” Fowler said.
Yet realistically, given what Pinehurst and the USGA can present, Fowler and Compton — not to mention Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson, both at 2 under — are still in it. Kaymer has been zen about his position and his play, calm even when devious forces went to work. “I like to be in control of things,” he said. “It’s the way, I think, a lot of Germans are. But at the end of the day, you have to feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel and trust your skill and all the work.”
He has one more day for his skill and work to fight off evil. That would make him the U.S. Open champion.