PINEHURST, N.C. – For most of the afternoon, for most of the tournament, really, Martin Kaymer's only real competition was himself.
Not everyone is up to that challenge.
Kaymer is not the first golfer to experience success right out of the box, hit a lull in mid-career, and then summon up the guts to overhaul his swing. But he's one of the few who wound up holding a major championship trophy in both the before and after photos.
If you watched only snippets of the U.S. Open, it was easy to get the impression Kaymer was the only player in it. There are plenty of numbers to detail his dominance, but the final one is enough. Kaymer's 9-under 271 total left his closest pursuers — Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler, the only other players to finish in the red — a grasping-at-air eight shots behind.
Before he went out each day and put on a clinic on how to play a restored Pinehurst No. 2 layout, the TV cameras showed Kaymer on the practice range, a tennis ball hanging from a lanyard around his neck. As teaching aids go, it didn't look like much. But before each swing, he squeezed the ball between his forearms, trying to feel that pressure all the way to the top of his backswing instead of having to think about it too much.
Small wonder, then, that when someone asked afterward why he undertook the change, Kaymer replied: "I've answered that question so many times. Honestly, I get tired of it, I'm sorry. But I just want to become a complete player, that's it."
And he left it at that.
There's more to that story, of course. Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship with a fade-only swing he honed as a youngster, the same one that helped him climb up the ranks of the European Tour in a hurry. He got to No. 1 in the world the following season with it, too. But a slow slide down the ranking — Kaymer was at No. 63 as recently as six weeks ago — coupled with a frustrating inability to compete at the Masters, over an Augusta National course that favors players who can draw the ball, convinced Kaymer he had to tear down his old swing and learn to move the ball both ways.
So maybe it was fitting that the best shot he hit all week was a sizzling 212-yard approach in the third round from the sandy, scruffy beach alongside the fifth fairway. Exploding off the clubface, the ball hooked right to left and rolled within 5 feet of the flag to set up an easy eagle. And while sound mechanics played a big role in the decision to try the shot, it didn't seem hard when compared to all the changes Kaymer had already made to put himself in that spot.
"A lot of people can say I want to keep going, I want to play aggressive. But then somehow you hold back," Kaymer said.
"You have to convince yourself," he added a moment later. "You have to believe. You have to play brave. If you hit a bad shot, you hit a bad shot. But that's the way you want to play golf or at least the way I want to play golf. You want to go for the flags ... Just because you're leading by five or six shots doesn't mean you should play defensive.
"You have to do it, and I did it the first five or six holes and that kept me going all day. But it was very important," he said finally, "to start off with that attitude."
Craig Connelly, Kaymer's caddie, had a front-row seat for the transformation.
"To see all that hard work pay off," Connelly paused, searching for right words, "is extremely satisfying. The idea was to put the past behind and move forward, but everything is a progression. He came out at the start of the year and he wasn't hitting the ball good, then put in three solid weeks of practice and came back at Houston ready to go."
Kaymer tied for 31st at the Masters soon after, hardly impressive, but it was also his best finish there ever. He won The Players Championship in May, a harbinger of what was to come.
"He lapped the field," USGA executive director Mike Davis marveled as he stood alongside the 18th green, just yards from where Kaymer hoisted the trophy for photographers.
Davis, who's in charge of setting up the U.S. Open courses, didn't seem at all bothered by the way Kaymer wended his way around every obstacle in his path.
"He played with such precision," Davis continued, "but maybe even more impressive is the way he thought his way around the course. I followed him the last two days and even his bad shots were smart ones. I can't tell you how many times I said to myself, 'How did he know to miss it there, or there?'
"There were plenty of places it was easy to miss and make seven. Somehow," Davis said finally, "when he missed, he always made five."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at http://www.twitter.com/JimLitke