The shot that won the U.S. Open wasn’t played on Sunday. It was played on the fifth hole on Saturday, when Martin Kaymer’s drive strayed left and ended up in the expanse of sand, pine needles and native plants that replaced the rough in the dramatic renovations of Pinehurst’s No. 2 course.
Kaymer was struggling then after cruising through the first two days of the tournament, having bogeyed two of the first four holes Saturday, his lead shrinking to five strokes. Had Kaymer landed in a mess of wiregrass or toad flax or any of Pinehurst’s other lurking dangers, as he had on the previous hole when he was forced to take a drop from a pile of pine straw, he might have seen the tournament slip away completely.
Absent any vegetation, Kaymer’s 7-iron landed 6 feet from the pin on the par-5. When he sank the eagle putt, any chance the field had of catching him evaporated. Even with the course set up to play easier Sunday and encourage a challenge from the field, no one could catch the brilliant Kaymer, who strolled to an eight-stroke win over Erik Compton and Dustin Johnson at 9-under par 271.
“I think it’s nearly more impressive than what I did at Congressional,” said Rory McIlroy, who won by eight strokes in 2011.
Having the tournament hang on an aggressive shot from the native rough is exactly what Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore wanted when they turned the clock back to the spirit of Donald Ross’ original design and exactly what the USGA wanted when it endorsed the changes and brought the tournament back to Pinehurst for the third time in 15 years (the women, too, this time).
Under normal Open circumstances, Kaymer would have been left chipping out of ankle-high rough. In this case, he was able to gamble with a courageous shot at Pinehurst’s most dangerous green and come away the U.S. Open champion.
“There’s never been a U.S. Open where you can drive it in the rough and make eagle on a par-5,” said Brendon Todd, who played with Kaymer on Saturday. “So that’s a little different.”
Phil Mickelson compared it to a British Open, with the native areas and all the tricky shots around the green. The course certainly looked rougher around the edges than it did in 1999 and 2005 and it played completely different as the new balance of risk and reward certainly tested players in a new way.
“It certainly adds an element of difficulty to the shot and risk and how much you want to take on,” said Adam Scott, who finished in a tie for ninth. “I think it’s interesting. It’s good, a better way to challenge us and see what imagination we have and try and create some shots, because most of us can just chip it sideways out of 7-inch rough on the sides of the fairway.”
That was one of several rave reviews for Pinehurst as a venue. Unfortunately, Kaymer’s dominance rendered Sunday anticlimactic as Pinehurst continued to pay its karmic debt for the uncomparable theater of Payne Stewart’s triumphant – and eventually tragic – victory over Mickelson in 1999.
At least this time there was no doubting the worthiness of the champion, unlike one-hit wonder Michael Campbell in 2005. Kaymer is a two-time major winner and Ryder Cup star who was far and away the best player on the course throughout the week, a wire-to-wire winner who played nearly mistake-free golf, shook off every challenge and tore apart a course that tore apart everyone else.