Rarely has a two-time major winner and defending US Open champion walked down a fairway in such relative anonymity as Martin Kaymer did at Chambers Bay earlier this week.
The crowd that turned out early on Tuesday to see Masters winner Jordan Spieth practise alongside Tiger Woods had departed. The fans clamouring to see the top-ranked Rory McIlroy had left. The gallery that greeted Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson on the first tee had thinned out.
Not that it bothered Kaymer one bit. He blissfully went about his business.
“A lot of times I’m under the radar, I feel like, which is fine,” Kaymer said ahead of launching his title defence today. “Obviously the other guys, they should get a lot of credit for what they’ve done.”
Then again, Kaymer deserves credit, too. The meticulous German won his first major title at the US PGA Championship in 2010 at Whistling Straits, another links-style course nestled along Lake Michigan that will also host this year’s tournament. Then came his peerless performance at Pinehurst last year, when Kaymer opened such a large lead by Sunday that the final round amounted to a coronation rather than a competition. He wound up putting another three shots between himself and Fowler and Erik Compton, shooting a final-round 69 for a resounding eight-shot victory.
“Martin had a pretty awesome performance last year,” Fowler said following his own practice round. “He didn’t really give us a chance to go catch him.”
“I enjoy playing difficult golf courses wherever they are. “It’s just a challenge”Martin Kaymer
So where are the crowds that should be engulfing Kaymer on the wind-swept course overlooking Puget Sound? Why are reporters chasing after Woods and Mickelson, and the game’s other young guns, and breezing right past the 30-year-old with the square jaw and powerful swing?
They’re questions that stump Henrik Stenson, who finished ten shots back a year ago. “He put on a fantastic show and left everybody else in the dust,” Stenson said, pausing for comedic effect: “But it was still a good race for second, I guess.”
Kaymer certainly enjoyed his year as champion. Nearly every tournament he played in wanted him to bring along his trophy, and the replica that he gets to keep now sits on a wooden stand next to his replica of the Wanamaker Trophy from his US PGA Championship triumph.
More than anything else, though, it was the respect that he received from those in the golf community. Maybe a few more fans followed him each week, and a few more asked for autographs during practice rounds, but his victory at Pinehurst – and the manner in which Kaymer accomplished it – almost seemed to elevate him to a new level in the locker room. Now, he will try to defend his US Open title on a layout that should suit him well.
Chambers Bay, just south of Seattle, has quickly earned a reputation for being unlike any other course. But the truth is that it has some of the same elements of Whistling Straits and even Pinehurst, which returned to its native bump-and-run state for last year’s championship.
Stray too far from the generous fairways and there’s knee-high fescue, broken up by the occasional waste bunker. Greens are so topsy-turvy that well-placed shots can skip off at odd angles, as Fowler found out when his approach shot during a practice round hit the front of the green, rolled backwards and finished in a bunker 30 yards away.
“I believe we’re going to play three British Opens this year: We start here and then we play the real one at St Andrews, and then Whistling Straits,” Kaymer said. “The guys from the UK might have a little bit of an advantage this week, because this is what they grew up on.”
Especially if the course dries out, which the forecast for the week suggests. But even at its most brutal, Kaymer said he relishes the opportunity to defend his title at Chambers Bay.
“For me, I enjoy playing difficult golf courses wherever they are, because it’s not about making too many birdies, not about a putting competition,” he said. “It’s just a challenge. It’s the biggest challenge that we have after the Masters, I think.”
A number of players have compared the hard and fast conditions at Chambers Bay to those which prevailed at Muirfield for the 2013 Open, when Mickelson was the only player to finish under par.
The six-time US Open runner-up believes he can draw on that experience as he looks to become only the sixth player in history to have won all four major titles.
“I think that’s a good point in that having success at Muirfield, when the course was dry and firm and fast and brown, much like Chambers is, gives me much more confidence that I’m going to play well,” Mickelson said.
“I think the other thing, too, about Chambers Bay is you don’t have to be perfect. You can miss shots and reasonably still salvage pars, rely on your short game. I feel that you have a bigger margin of error.”
Mickelson celebrated his 45th birthday on Tuesday and although the winners of the last six majors have been getting progressively younger – from a 36-year-old Jason Dufner to 21-year-old Spieth – he does not believe time is running out.
“I don’t feel that sense of urgency,” added Mickelson, whose most recent runners-up finish in this event came behind Justin Rose at Merion in 2013. “I’m in the best shape I’ve been in.”