PINEHURST, N.C. — Martin Kaymer might not have already won this U.S. Open, but Phil Mickelson’s definitely lost it.
While the former world No. 1 from Germany continued compiling record low scores and opening a six-shot cushion on the field, everybody’s sentimental favorite faded into the background on the stage he hoped to complete his career slam.
“The hole looks like a thimble to me right now,” Mickelson said after a second-round 3-over-par 73 left him 13 shots behind runaway leader Kaymer. “I’m having a hard time finding it.”
Some might suggest that Mickelson puts the mental in sentimental with his willingness to make radical changes on the fly in the biggest tournaments. He admitted as much Tuesday.
“Right now the game plan is X, but it can certainly become Y in a matter of minutes,” he said.
That sudden shift to “Plan Why” happened Friday. Mickelson changed his putting before the tournament to a claw grip he felt would work better on the slick and slopey greens. But he switched back Friday to a conventional grip and adjusted his head alignment trying to find a stroke that could conjure up a run at the man who was 10 shots in front of him when Mickelson started his round.
After a pair of birdies on the second and third holes, it looked like Mickelson might have hit on the right formula. Then it all went south.
“I thought I was going to have a good putting day,” he said. “I made the putt on 2 and 3 and I hit a really good putt on 5 that didn’t go and I thought I was going to have a good day. The 3-putt on 6 shook me a little bit. Then 8. After that I was really fighting it.”
By the end of the day, his fight seemed over. His willingness to concede that Kaymer might not win only went so far as to think somebody else might do it.
“We have always had crazy things happen,” Mickelson said of U.S. Open weekends. “So you just never know. There’s a lot of guys right there ready to pounce if he slips up.”
Kaymer will have to slip as he seems to have everybody chasing for second place – a position Mickelson is uninterested in achieving for the seventh time in 15 years. The 2010 PGA champion took full advantage of the two most benign days possible on Pinehurst No. 2 and rattled off a pair of 65s – each of them two shots better than the next best score in the field. The combination adds up to the lowest 36-hole score (130) in U.S. Open history and tied the largest margin (six) in 114 installments of America’s oldest championship.
“It gets boring the words that I use, but I mean there’s not much to say,” Kaymer confessed of his nearly flawless form. “It’s just good right now the way I play golf.”
That’s the understatement of the year. Only a month ago Kaymer was running away with The Players Championship until a late-afternoon rain delay disrupted his roll. He still held on at the end for the second biggest victory of his career.
Those staring up at his score at Pinehurst were struggling to figure out how he lapped them all.
“I heard he played the No. 3 course,” Kevin Na said of the 5,800-yard Donald Ross sister track adjacent to No. 2. “Is that true?”
Brendon Todd, the former Georgia golfer with the closest look at Kaymer in solo second at 4-under, was impressed.
“Kaymer’s performance has been incredible,” Todd said. “He’s playing a brand of golf that we haven’t seen probably in a long time – since maybe Tiger.”
Close. Kaymer’s 36-hole lead ties the absurd margin that Woods owned in his record-shattering 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach in 2000.
Rory McIlroy matched it as well at Congressional in 2011 when he went on to win by eight.
“Obviously, I played Congressional and I thought, ‘How can you shoot that low?’” Kaymer recalled of McIlroy’s performance in 2011 that came a 36th-hole bogey from matching his pair of 65s this week. “And that’s probably what a lot of other people think about me right now.”
On Wednesday when the Pinehurst greens were approaching unplayable, Kaymer believed 8-over might be a winning score. But overnight watering before Thursday and an inch of overnight rain before Friday allowed Kaymer to get 18 strokes ahead of his target score.
“I wouldn’t take it anymore, obviously,” he said.
Stranger things have happened. Dr. Gil Morgan was the first player to reach double digit figures under par in a U.S. Open, getting to 12-under in 1992 at Pebble Beach. He played the rest of the way in 17-over and wound up tied for 13th.
More recently at Pinehurst, Retief Goosen held a three-shot 54-hole lead over the likes of Jason Gore and Olin Browne in 2005 and looked unbeatable.
Goosen’s coronation, however, was derailed by a Sunday 81 that left him staggering away in 11th place.
Can Kaymer hold off the bunched-up masses in his wake?
“If he does it for two more days, then we’re all playing for second spot,” said Adam Scott, whose Friday 67 got him to even par. “But we all know that U.S. Opens get very difficult. ... I don’t know why he would change anything of what he’s doing. Potentially, he goes out (Saturday) and plays better than everyone again and this thing’s over.”
Kaymer doesn’t plan on changing anything but won’t think about it being over until it’s over.
“I don’t want to put more pressure on myself,” he said. “There’s enough pressure playing the U.S. Open and trying to finish as high as possible.”