PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Martin Kaymer reached the top of golf and wondered how he got there.
He won his first major at the 2010 PGA Championship. He reached No. 1 in the world six months later. And then he realized his game would not be good enough to keep him there.
Kaymer wasn’t much different from Tiger Woods, who overhauled his swing not long after a record-setting performance in the 1997 Masters Tournament. Kaymer was concerned about being a one-dimensional player – his primary shot was a fade – especially if he wanted to contend at Augusta National Golf Club and other majors.
He just didn’t realize it would take this long.
Halfway through his victory at The Players Championship, he thought about the time he put in on his game.
“All that work, all the hours,” Kaymer said. “When you are standing on the range for six, seven hours, hitting the same shot, the same drill, you feel like it should be enough. You just don’t want to be there at one stage because it’s so much. And it’s a little boring as well. But you know long-term, it will become something good.”
It paid off in a big way last week at The Players, the next best thing to a major.
The 29-year-old German tied the course record with 63 on Thursday and was never behind after any round the rest of the way. His biggest challenge Sunday was when he had to return from a 90-minute storm delay and finish four holes in which he had everything to lose.
Even with a double bogey that cut his lead to one shot, he didn’t feel as if the tournament were slipping away.
About the only thing that annoyed him was that “soft egg” moment to the left of the green on the par-5 16th. Kaymer had spoken all week about being confident enough in his swing to stop thinking about the mechanics and start playing by feel. He talked about hitting the brave shot, not the easy one.
He kept using the word “wimp,” until he jokingly was asked the German word for it.
“Weiches ei,” he replied in his native language. And then he offered that polite smile and added the English translation. “It’s ‘soft egg.’ ”
Instead of chipping on the 16th, Kaymer decided to use a putter. He didn’t hit it nearly hard enough, so instead of having a good chance at birdie, he had to two-putt from more than 30 feet just to make par and keep his one-shot lead.
He wound up with one of the craziest pars ever on the island green at the par-3 17th, which ended with a 30-foot putt that broke some 8 feet to the right. And he collected the crystal trophy, along with the $1.8 million check from the richest purse on the PGA Tour.
But that wimpy decision on the 16th gnawed at him. He wants perfection.
“It’s not the right thing to putt it. It’s a soft egg,” he said. “The swing is all good. I’m happy the way that it works out and the way I go. Everything is fine, and I’m really happy about this. But those things … on 16, I was not true to myself, and that’s painful. It really is. Because it’s just not right.
“You can think, ‘I won the golf tournament. I should be happy,’ ” he said. “And I’m very, very happy about this. But those are things I would like to improve for the future.”
Kaymer now has won 14 times around the world. Even as he was retooling his swing with longtime coach Gunter Kessler, he managed to win a World Golf Championship in Shanghai by closing with 63. Having barely made a Ryder Cup team in 2012 when Europe would have been better off without him because of his form, Kaymer still had enough left to beat Steve Stricker in the match that assured Europe would keep the cup.
And he won at the end of last year in South Africa.
But it means more to have beaten one of the strongest fields in golf, and to have conquered a course on the TPC Sawgrass that punishes the slightest mistake.
Kaymer never really flinched all week. He put his name out front and stayed there. Darren Clarke noticed it in the second round. Kaymer didn’t hit it his best that day, but he scored. That’s the golf Clarke remembered.
“He’s a proper golfer this one,” Clarke said. “He’s a finely tuned engineer.”
Perhaps he is ready to take his place among the best in the game. The major season is just getting started.
“Now it’s important that you don’t stop,” he said. “It’s very easy to just be happy now, relax and let things happen. But now it’s a time we have to work even harder.”