Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2014

A Great Week For Kaymer, And Others As Well

Most weeks on the PGA Tour there is only one winner. Most years at the men’s U.S. Open the sole winner is the golf course; while the golfer who winds up hoisting the trophy is more accurately characterized as a survivor. Which made this year’s Open at venerable Pinehurst #2 so remarkable, for there were winners galore.

As usual the venue emerged triumphant. Donald Ross came to America from Scotland in 1899, and one year later was hired at the golf professional at the then-fledgling health resort in the sand hills of central North Carolina. Seven years later Ross’s first layout and the second course at Pinehurst opened for play. Ross would go on to become one of the most prolific and influential course designers of the 20th century, his links typically featuring humpbacked greens and maximal use of the natural contours of the land. But as a Pinehurst resident he spent the rest of his life tinkering with his beloved maiden design. Now more than a century later, with so many Ross designs unrecognizable after multiple reconfigurations by generations of later architects, Pinehurst #2 remains the old Scot’s signature layout.

Thanks to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and for the benefit of future generations of golfers, that signature is now more accurate than it has been in decades. Hired four years ago to restore the course to its natural contours, the pair undertook detailed research on the early days of #2. Their breakthrough moment came on a chance visit to the library in the Village of Pinehurst, where they unearthed extensive plans, hole descriptions and World War II vintage aerial photographs of the area. Armed with this evidence they stripped the course of its rough, digging down to unearth the natural hard-pan and wire grass which had originally lined the fairways. They also replaced Pinehurst’s extensive modern irrigation system, typical of most golf resorts, with a single line of sprinkler heads down the middle of each fairway.

The result unveiled this week was very different from what golf fans are used to seeing at U.S. Open layouts. No perfectly green fairways bordered by knee-high rough. Instead the new/old #2 features landing areas that turn brown and wispy on the edges, with acres of natural vegetation and sand running along either side. It is at once visually stunning, a fair and stern test of golf, and a harbinger of what may be to come for many courses as the cost of pumping millions of gallons of water through irrigation systems becomes increasingly expensive.

But while one expects the golf course to win at the U.S. Open, the same can’t always be said for the USGA. Too often over the years the men in the blue sports coats (and unfortunately at the highest levels of the Association they are still mostly men), have been obsessed to the point of fanaticism with safeguarding par. But since Mike Davis became Director of Competition a decade ago and especially since he moved up to Executive Director three years ago, the USGA finally seems to have figured out that golf is not a game of perfect.

So in recent years the national championship has been played at a daily fee public course, Bethpage Black, and has returned after a three decade absence to Merion, a historic course thought by many to be too short to challenge modern players. Next year’s Open will be at Chambers Bay in Washington, another public course less than a decade old; hardly a venue one would expect to be chosen by the hidebound old USGA.

This year the Association took a huge chance by scheduling the men’s and women’s Opens back-to-back on the same golf course. It could have all blown up if the course had been left chewed up and the greens browned out this Sunday evening, even as the best women golfers in the world prepare to take center stage. But the weather cooperated and the sand base of #2 guarantees that the course should recover well and will drain quickly should rain fall this week. The bold gamble appears to have paid off for Mike Smith and the USGA, as we’ll know for sure come next Sunday evening.

It would even be fair to say that there were multiple winners among the competitors. While his legion of fans will be disappointed by his final round of 2-over 72, this week has to be counted as a success for 25-year old Rickie Fowler. Perhaps the most popular golfer on the PGA Tour after two guys named Tiger and Phil (and probably more popular than those two combined among fans of his age group), Fowler turned pro after the 2009 Walker Cup with great promise and even greater hype. Since then there has been plenty of the latter, from his numerous commercial endorsement deals and his impossible to miss Sunday orange outfits. What there hasn’t been is much of the former being realized. Fowler’s lone PGA Tour win came in 2012, leading one of the NBC television crew to dismiss him this week as “all hat and no cattle.”

But it’s often easy to forget just how young some of these players are. Fowler continues to work hard on his game and is starting to show results from swing changes instituted by new coach Butch Harmon. After a pair of even par 70s he returned one of just two sub-par rounds on Saturday, a 3-under 67 that moved him up into a tie for second place, even as many other golfers were moving backwards. For the first time at a major Fowler played in the final pairing on Sunday. What little chance he had at the start of the round essentially disappeared when a bad second shot played pinball in the trees at the par-4 4th hole, eventually kicking back into a sandy area. His third from there was even worse, sailing over the green and into a lie where he was stymied from shooting at the green by a pair of pines. But while he could have mailed it in from there Fowler played even par over the final 14 holes, offsetting three bogeys with an equal number of birdies to finish in a tie for second, one of just three golfers under par for the tournament.

As has been well documented, the player Fowler tied with was a multiple winner long before the first tee ball was struck at Pinehurst. Diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition at age 9, Erik Compton underwent successful transplant surgery when he was 12. That heart in turn failed sixteen years later and Compton became the improbable survivor of two heart transplants. Playing in just his second major championship and having played his way through qualifying to do so, Compton turned in the only other round below par on Saturday, matching Fowler’s 67. That put him in the next to last group, and for much of Sunday afternoon he was the closest thing to a threat to the Open’s eventual winner. In the end Compton fell back with three bogeys on the closing nine, but his tie for second assures him a spot at Chambers Bay and also gets him into next year’s Masters.

In some other year Fowler and Compton might have been headed for a Monday playoff after participating in an epic finish, for there were eight golfers within three shots of them at the finish. But this was not some other year; it was Martin Kaymer’s year. The 29-year old German, who has rediscovered his game since committing himself to playing more and thinking less, won the Players Championship on Mother’s Day last month. This week he set himself up for a major win on Father’s Day with a pair of textbook 5-under 65s on Thursday and Friday, reaching 10-under par in fewer holes than anyone in U.S. Open history. He led by 6 at the start of the third round, and when he finished that round with a birdie the lead was still 5.

On Sunday no one got closer than four, and when Kaymer made consecutive birdies at the 13th and 14th holes even as his pursuers were falling back, the rout was fully on. As the sun slid toward the horizon Kaymer’s par putt rolled in on the 18th at Pinehurst #2, and his wire-to-wire 8-shot victory was complete. He now has multiple majors, a win at the Players, and a win at a World Golf Championship event. The only two other golfers who can say that are named Tiger and Phil. But unlike either of them, Martin Kaymer won’t turn 30 until December. In a week with many winners, he was the biggest of them all. There may really be something to be said for thinking less and playing more.

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