UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Rarely has a two-time major winner and defending U.S. Open champion walked down a fairway in such as relative anonymity as Martin Kaymer did Tuesday afternoon at Chambers Bay.
The crowd that turned out early to see Masters winner Jordan Spieth practice alongside Tiger Woods had departed. The fans clamoring to see top-ranked Rory McIlroy had left. The gallery that had 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. “Obviously the other guys, they should get a lot of credit for what they’ve done.”
Then again, Kaymer deserves his due, too.
The meticulous German won his first major title at the PGA Championship in 2010 at Whistling Straits, another links-style course nestled along Lake Michigan that will also host this year’s tournament. Then, 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 Rickie 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 Tuesday. “He didn’t really give us a chance to go catch him.”
So where are the crowds that should be engulfing Kaymer on the wind-swept course overlooking Puget Sound? Why are reporters chasing after Tiger and Phil and the game’s other young guns, and breezing right past the former soccer star with the square jaw and powerful swing?
They’re questions that stump Henrik Stenson, who finished 10 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 tote 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 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 autograph 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 U.S. 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 carom off at odd angles, as Rickie Fowler found out when his approach shot during a practice round early Tuesday hit on the front of the green, rolled backward 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. “I think 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.”
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