Although it will dominate the news like it dominated the U.S. Open golfers here Sunday, the best story was not the tough-to-play Pinehurst No. 2 course.
The best story, if you watched closely and listened carefully, was the game’s emerging star, Martin Kaymer.
It is easy, and probably premature, to take this a step further and talk about golf’s current need for such a thing.
Tiger Woods is oft injured now, oft surly about both the present and the future, and, with a few more failures at major tournaments, perhaps fading as the guy driving the lead cart.
Phil Mickelson will turn 44 Monday. He is still a fan favorite, still can be meteoric as he was in the British Open last year. But his game shows increasing signs of the bloom coming off the rose.
Still, this is not a pitch for making Kaymer the next big thing. It is a suggestion that the raw material is there and we shouldn’t overlook it, just because he speaks with a German accent and plays the game like a perfectly engineered Mercedes-Benz.
Boring perfection in performance doesn’t translate to superstar status. In major sports these days, one must win a lot and light up the personality meter, too.
Kaymer has the win-a-lot part going.
Unless he collapses Sunday — always a possibility on a golf course that plays like a cement parking lot and is enabled to do so by a U.S. Golf Assn. that is fond of cement — he will parlay his five-shot lead into his second major title.
His first was the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, which better camouflages its evil, torturous treatment of golfers by resting on the scenic cliffs of the western shoreline of Lake Michigan.
But he also was No. 1 in the world rankings for six weeks in 2011, still is No. 28, and will rise after this U.S. Open. He is one of only four to win a major, a World Golf Championships series event and the tour’s Players Championship. The other three are Woods, Mickelson and Adam Scott.
Kaymer won the Players, considered the fifth major, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., last month and won $1.8 million for that alone. If he wins the U.S. Open, his take of the purse will be $1.44 million, worth 10 times that much in prestige.
He also sank the putt, at Medinah near Chicago in 2012, that allowed the Europeans to keep the Ryder Cup.
Saturday, he took a six-shot lead into the third round here. After a long day of men standing in weeds and balls rolling off greens — a day that began with 13 players under par and ended with just six — he still had a five-shot lead with his workmanlike, systematic two-over 72.
On a day when you could have dropped a bowling ball from 30 feet above and it would have rolled off most of the greens, Kaymer was successful at merely coping.
That is all he needed to do, and that is the point here.
He is 29 years old, carried a five-handicap when he turned pro in 2005, and won more than $1 million on the European tour two years later.
In Germany, he is known as “Golf Gigante,” and his presence, along with Champions Tour star Bernhard Langer, is boosting the sport’s popularity in his country. Still, he remains realistic about where golf might fit in compared to his country’s soccer mania. He joked that if he won the U.S. Open, it would be a big deal in Germany until about midday Monday, when Germany plays a World Cup game.
In his three days in the spotlight here, the personality meter has shown high readings.
Saturday, he was asked several questions as to his state of mind about the pressure cooker he had faced so far and would really face Sunday.
He leaned forward, smiled that big smile, and did his best to give a bunch of media types looking for a meaningful sentence or sound bite a lesson in perspective.
“I watched [the movie] ‘Bagger Vance’ yesterday,” Kaymer said, “and he said, ‘At the end of the day, we are playing a game . . .’ That is what we are doing.
“You have to play the game. . . . If you try to control everything — which is a little bit the way I am as a person, I like to be in control of things, the way most Germans are — you have to have feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel, trust your skill and all the work.
“Today, when I’m standing on 18, that’s a tough tee shot. . . . It’s very difficult to see any fairway from the back tee. . . . So you stand there, and for me, it was such an enjoyable shot. . . . You are seven under par at the U.S. Open, playing your third round . . . it’s the final hole.
“So it’s a very, very nice thing. It’s about that feel, that touch, that you play with your heart, that you can’t control too many things. . . . Now I just play.”
Sunday, Kaymer will “just play.” He might win. He might not.
But if he doesn’t, it appears he will have a better grasp on that than the rest of us, who see only results where he sees process; who see only pressure where he sees the joy of having it.
Martin Kaymer is not yet a media sensation. But if the media takes the time to listen, he may be in the conversation soon.