The strange case of Kaymer's collapse
Anything can happen in 18-hole match play and probably will is a popular golf saying. The same can be said for 72-hole stroke play.
The 2015 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. As Europe's best prepare this week for this year's tournament, I still find it hard to believe Martin Kaymer didn’t run away with that tournament.
Kaymer had a 10-shot lead early in the final round in a tournament he practically owned. In eight previous appearances in Abu Dhabi, Kaymer was 85 under-par. He was a three-time winner, including back to back victories in 2010 and 2011. His 24-under 264 in 2011 set a tournament record for low score. A score so low Padraig Harrington didn't think it was possible.
No way was the German going to lose that tournament. Myself and other journalists in attendance would have bet our mortgages on it. We were so convinced of the outcome, we’d practically written our game stories. All we had to do was add Kaymer’s quotes.
We had to do rewrites when Kaymer collapsed over the final nine holes to hand the tournament to Frenchman Gary Stal, who came from eight shots behind for his only European Tour win. (Where is he right now?) Rory McIlroy finished second while Kaymer finished third. Here’s what became my Golfweek lead from that tournament:
“Christmas came late for Gary Stal. Martin “Santa Claus” Kaymer gave the 21-year-old Frenchman the biggest present of his life.”
Kaymer has 11 European Tour wins, but hasn’t hasn’t won since that collapse. Coincidence? Who knows? What I do know is that we’re talking about a two-time major winner and former world number one, a guy who had the nerve to hole a six-foot putt on the final green that ensured Europe won the 2012 Ryder Cup, the Miracle of Medinah.
His last victory came in the 2014 U.S. Open, his second major win after the 2010 PGA Championship. He's had three seconds on the European Tour since that Abu Dhabi collapse. He was runner up in that year's Italian Open, and finished second in the 2018 BMW International and last year's Estrella Damm N.A. Andalucia Masters. How does a player go from 11 wins in eight years to winless in six?
Answer? Easily. It's called golf.
Kaymer should have been flying after that second major victory. Instead he was questioning himself, as he reveals in Thomas Bjorn and Michael Calvin’s excellent book Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf’s Winners.
“You see good results and, in my case, underestimate yourself a little. All of a sudden you win a major, you play a vital role in Ryder Cups, you win a second major. Then you need to adjust, because it’s sometimes overwhelming and not understandable.”
He underestimated himself? How can a player of his talent and ability get to such a place?
“When I was number one in the world, it took me a such a long time to understand why that feeling was so empty. There was so little satisfaction it felt meaningless. I had never felt so lonely.”
Kaymer isn’t the first to reach the top of the mountain and be underwhelmed by the view. David Duval is another former world number one who just didn't quite receive the satisfaction he thought would come from winning a major championship. He lifted the old claret jug in the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham, and admitted winning his first major didn’t give him the buzz he was expecting. Maybe that explains why his game went south so quickly afterwards.
Unlike Duval, Kaymer did come to appreciate reaching the top of the mountain.
“About a year and a half later I realised I was not proud of reaching number one, but I was so proud and happy about what I had done to get there. Those very private and intimate moments you have with the sport, developing and creating on your own, that’s the beauty of what we do. Success is just the outcome.”
We often experience this feeling in our own golf. Most of us travel to the course more in hope than expectation. Even on those odd days when we play well, the feeling of elation is fleeting, ephemeral. We know we’ll probably not play that well for a long while. Yet it doesn’t stop us making that 18-hole journey again and again. Most of us make those journeys because we love this game.
There’s an apt parallel in hill walking. Touching that cairn at the top of the Munro or Corbett is a good feeling, but the long walk up and the sights and sounds we experience on the climb are just as rewarding as standing on the peak. Sometimes better.
P.S. I hope Kaymer wins this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
#JustSaying: “I know what it’s like to let a lead slip. You make a couple of bad swings and guys make a couple of birdies around you and all of a sudden you're put under a little bit of pressure and it’s hard to come back because you feel the momentum has gone against you and you’re trying to swim up stream or into the tide.” Rory McIlroy