PINEHURST, N.C. – Nostalgia has been a theme for the week here at the 114th U.S. Open, a large part of that owed to the rich history of Pinehurst No. 2, a healthy dose due to the everlasting memory of Payne Stewart.
His unforgettable putt with the championship’s final stroke cemented his legend and won the 1999 U.S. Open here and with a statue of Stewart sitting just steps from the 18th green, it’s likely that nostalgia will remain thicker than the sand and pine needles that cushion your every step.
But while we’re at it, the image of John Daly must be invoked as part of our stroll down this Pinehurst/U.S. Open memory lane, short as it might be. So enamored with his opening 68 that year was Daly that he gushed about the USGA and its set-up.
“Knowing that I could pretty much hit driver on most of the holes helped an awful lot,” Daly said.
Three days later, with a final-round 83 having included penalty strokes for hitting a moving ball at the par-4 eighth, Daly was dead last of those who made the cut and hotter than an erupting Mount St. Helens. In a relative blink of an eye, the USGA had transformed from heroes to monsters.
“The U.S. Open is not John Daly’s style of golf. I’m not going to Pebble Beach (for the 2000 U.S. Open) and watch the USGA ruin that golf course, too.”
Ah, the enigma of Long John, which is not to predict that we’ll have a repeat of his explosive departure 15 years ago. But to remember how Daly’s mood changed so dramatically is to serve notice that this is a championship that may toss a gentler-than-expected embrace upon you on Thursday, but rest assured it will eventually provide a bed for thorns.
Even someone who stands as the polar opposite to Daly understands that.
“The golf course will change a lot,” Martin Kaymer said, trying to calm the excitement that surrounded his 5-under 65 in Thursday’s opening round that provided him a three-stroke cushion. “It’s a good start – nothing more than that.”
To appreciate how Pinehurst No. 2 had been softened in the middle and eased at the edges from firm and fast practice rounds, consider that Kaymer had been asked Wednesday what sort of score he would take for 72 holes. “Plus-8,” he replied. So clearly when the 29-year-old German arrived for his afternoon round Thursday, he was pleased to see how officials had presented the course.
“It was playable,” he said.
It was at the start (a birdie at No. 1) and all the way to the end, for Kaymer birdied 14, 15, and 17, then backed it all up with an 8-foot par-save at 18. In becoming the first to reach 5-under in three U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2 (for the record, David Duval pushed to 5-under eight holes into his second round in 1999, but faded into a share of seventh), Kaymer also posted the lowest U.S. Open score here, clipping Peter Hedblom’s 66 in 2005.
The birdie outburst provided a three-stroke lead over a trio of names – Kevin Na and Graeme McDowell, both of whom played in the morning, and afternoon starters Brendon de Jonge and Fran Quinn Jr., a 49-year-old journeyman whose ties to the pro game stretch so far that he can lay claim to a berth in the 1992 U.S. Open, something only Phil Mickelson of this year’s field can also say.
Factor in another 10 names who shot 69 and No. 2 truly wasn’t the brute that had put jolts of fear through players. Henrik Stenson acknowledged as much, yet he seconded Kaymer’s warning about getting used to the friendliness.
“You feel like they’re kind of throwing something out there for us that’s somewhere in the middle, toward a little bit easier,” Stenson said, after posting one of those 69s. “Then you can tweak it from there on.”
Tweak? It’s what the USGA lives for, which is to say that one can take this to the nearest bank: Scores are as red as they’ll get. Don’t think so? Then harken back to 1999 when 3 under was the lead after Round 1 and 1 under won. Or study 2005 when 3 under was the Thursday lead and level par wound up winning.
“You’re kind of getting the hang of it,” Stenson said.
Players better hope so, because while there were enough red numbers (15) to provide leaderboard color, the redesign efforts of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore packed a significant punch that others felt. Most notably Jonas Blixt at 77, Bubba Watson at 76, Lee Westwood at 75, and those at 73 (Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk).
To say that Kaymer avoided the pitfalls that plagued those marquee names is an understatement, because playing in the usually more difficult afternoon conditions, the former world No. 1 looked very much in control. He hit 13 of 14 fairways, 11 of 18 greens, and required just 25 putts – the sort of ball-striking brilliance that carried him to victory in The Players Championship in early May.
He said he had noticed as he watched the morning play on TV that officials had adjusted this Donald Ross masterpiece so that it was a bit more playable than it had been earlier in the week. Most notably, he watched Stenson hit a 6-iron into the par-3 15th and saw it didn’t release very much.
“(That) was not really possible Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday,” Kaymer said. “So it’s quite nice when you play late on Thursday, that you can watch some golf in the morning and try to adjust mentally.”
Adjusting his mindset and adapting to the ups and downs of this pro golf business, of course, has been at the center of Kaymer’s world. Following Lee Westwood into the top spot in the world ranking in February of 2011, Kaymer fell out a few months later, then was nearly an afterthought by the summer of 2012.
Only thing is, he couldn’t be completely forgotten because he had earned his way onto the European Ryder Cup team, despite a stretch of miserable play.
“I wouldn’t have put myself on the team,” he said.
That he played poorly in his one team match and lost alongside Justin Rose was disappointing. That he then found himself standing over a putt on the 18th green of Sunday’s singles, with a chance to provide a European victory, was surreal.
Miss the putt “and it could break an athlete,” he said. Then he smiled. “I’m very happy I didn’t think about it while I was standing over that putt.”
Of course, he made it, and what it meant for Team Europe is obvious. The celebration is still going on. But for Kaymer, it meant more. “It made a very big difference for me, in the way of confidence.”
That played itself out just last month when it darkness he made an improbable 28-foot putt at the 17th hole to make par and help nail down his victory at The Players Championship. Now he has sprinted out of the gates at his seventh U.S. Open. He’s recorded a T-8 (2010) and made the cut six times, so Kaymer has a feel for the USGA landscape. In other words, he appreciates that conditions might remain playable Friday, then grow progressively tougher.
If you’re looking for a safe bet, here it is: He will handle the USGA blueprint better than Daly did 15 years ago.