PINEHURST, N.C. – Not even Martin Kaymer was immune from a Pinehurst No. 2 course that restored the reputation of a U.S. Open.
He threw enough counterpunches Saturday to leave him on the cusp of his second major.
On a broiling day with some wicked pin positions that yielded only two rounds under par, Kaymer rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to salvage a 2-over 72 and take a five-shot lead into the final round.
Only one player in U.S. Open history has lost a five-shot lead in the final round, and that was 95 years go.
“I didn’t play as well as the first two days, but I kept it together,” Kaymer said.
That was all that was required on a day when the U.S. Open finally looked like the toughest test in golf. Kaymer hit a 7-iron from the sandy area left of the fairway on the par-5 fifth hole to set up a 5-foot eagle putt, and his birdie on the final hole put him at 8-under 202.
Only the names of challengers changed, but they were sure to stir up the crowd – and the emotions.
Erik Compton, a two-time heart transplant recipient and perhaps the most remarkable story on the PGA Tour, rolled in a 40-foot putt on the 11th hole for one of his six birdies in a round of 67. He was tied at 3-under 207 with Rickie Fowler, a fan favorite of young American golf fans, who also had a 67.
Fowler will play in the final group of a major for the first time.
Only six players remained under par, and considering no one has come from more than seven shots behind in the final round to win a U.S. Open, they might be the only ones left with a realistic chance to catch the 29-year-old German.
Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson each shot 70 and were at 2-under 208. Brandt Snedeker had a 72 and was another shot behind.
Asked how much that birdie mattered on the 18th hole, Kaymer said, “One shot.”
“If you’re four shots, five shots, six shots, if you play a golf course like this, it can be gone very quickly,” he said. “You could see it today. So the challenge tomorrow is to keep going and not try to defend anything. So we’ll see how it will react tomorrow, how the body feels and how I handle the situation.”
Kaymer had his way with a softer, more gentle Pinehurst No. 2 by becoming the first player to open with 65s to set the 36-hole record at 10-under 130. Some players wondered what tournament he was playing.
There was no doubt what it was on Saturday.
“They’ve set it up so that no one can go low,” Retief Goosen said after a 71. “Some of the pins look like they’re about to fall off the greens.”
Toru Taniguchi shot an 88. Brendon Todd, playing in the final group with Kaymer, had a 79.
Phil Mickelson had a 73 and was 13 shots out of the lead. He’ll have to wait until next year to pursue the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam. Adam Scott, the world No. 1, made bogey on all but one of the par 3s and was 11 shots behind.
Kaymer nearly joined the parade of players going the wrong direction.
He ended an amazing streak of 29 holes without a bogey by failing to get up-and-down from short of the second green. Trouble really was brewing on the fourth hole, when he pulled his tee shot into the trees and couldn’t play his next shot.
The ball settled in a washed-out section of sand, next to a 6-inch pile of pine straw. He took a one-shot penalty only after learning he could move the pine straw as loose impediments before he took his drop.
“It’s all loose. How should I know what’s not loose,” he asked USGA President Tom O’Toole.
He punched out to the fairway and holed a 15-foot putt to escape with bogey. In the sandy area again on the next hole, Kaymer ripped a 7-iron from 202 yards that caught the front portion of the green and stopped pin-high for his eagle.
His long birdie putt on the par-3 sixth rolled off the back of the green for another bogey, and Kaymer dropped two more shots with three-putt bogeys, one of them from just off the green at No. 15. He also saved par with two putts from off the green, and the birdie was big.
Mike Brady is the only other player to lose a five-shot lead. That was in 1919 at Brae Burn Country Club in Massachusetts. He shot 80 in the last round, and Walter Hagen beat him the next day in a playoff.
Compton has never won on the PGA Tour, though just playing is a victory for a guy on his third heart. Compton had a heart attack and drove himself to the hospital before his most recent transplant seven years ago.
“I think that my attitude suits a U.S. Open-style course because I don’t ever give up,” Compton said.
Compton, Brendon de Jonge and Kevin Na were the only players to reach 4-under par in their pursuit of Kaymer. Only Compton managed to stay close. De Jonge bogeyed four of his last seven holes, while Na took two double bogeys in the last five holes.