Ryder Cup: Bernhard Langer miss gave Martin Kaymer the strength to sink that crucial putt
Chat with fellow German turns around fortunes and mood of match-winner
The huddle was almost Poulter-like in scale. A sea of outstretched arms bearing recording devices crashing against the dais to seek the testimony of the man whose putt sealed the Ryder Cup in Europe's favour. There was plenty for Martin Kaymer to tell, not least how a fireside chat on Friday night with his idol and mentor Bernhard Langer had saved the hero of the hour from despair.
It has been a while since the world wanted to know Kaymer's thoughts. The inexorable fall from the major-winning height of 2010 at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and his subsequent rise to the world No 1 ranking, was painful. There was a period around the start of last year when Kaymer couldn't miss. He was the Keegan Bradley of European golf. His views were sought on everything from the Euro crisis in Germany to Rory McIlroy's hair.
Typically commentators would ask him to explain, for example, why he thought McIlroy had not yet won a major and when that moment might come. The pair played together on the final day at Abu Dhabi at the end of 2010. It never came close to being a contest. Kaymer closed on 24 under par, eight shots clear of the field. He played golf that day from another world. Yet it was McIlroy who would emerge to dominate the following year.
Kaymer fiddled with his technique to turn a fade into a draw for the Masters at Augusta in April of 2011 and has barely been seen since. Until Sunday. Nicolas Colsaerts apart, Kaymer arrived at Medinah the lowest ranked member of either team, three places higher than the Belgian at No 32. Kaymer qualified for the Ryder Cup in the 10th spot. Had Ian Poulter not been assured of his place as a captain's pick he would have attended the final qualifying event in Europe, which in all likelihood would have dumped Kaymer out of the team.
Kaymer's form had been returning but slowly. He needed a big afternoon on the first day at Medinah to convince Jose Maria Olazabal that he had a significant role to play across the weekend. A heavy fourball defeat to Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson playing alongside Justin Rose sucked the brittle confidence from his game and made him question the value of a Ryder Cup experience from which he was gaining nothing. He was already on the phone to Langer before he reached the team room.
"I sat down with Bernhard and talked to him a little bit about the Ryder Cup because my attitude wasn't the right one. But now, after that match against Steve [Stricker], I know how important the Ryder Cup became and is for Jose Maria Olazabal. Bernhard helped me so much by just sitting down with me and talking about it. He told me I must not hide away from the rest of the team just because I felt I was playing poorly.
"He said I had to relax, to become involved in the team-room atmosphere, and accept that I was an equal member of the team. He said it was important to build relationships with the other guys, because that would help me play great golf, knowing that we depended on each other. And he told me that I must stop worrying about my game so much, because I was getting in my own way."
As the events of Sunday unfolded relentlessly through the afternoon, it became increasingly clear that fate was drawing Kaymer in. The 10-6 deficit was such that only a late starter would be in a position to secure the winning point. It came down to the penultimate match in which Kaymer was wrestling with Stricker. The duel was laboured yet intense. The match was all-square after 16 holes. The breakthrough came on the 17th when Kaymer stole ahead.
All he had to do now was hold on down the last. Both players missed birdie putts on a green described by Johnny Miller as somewhere between a tile floor and porcelain. Stricker slid 15 feet past the hole, Kaymer was eight feet away. Stricker had to hole to have a chance to halve the match. He did. Kaymer's mind drifted to that moment 21 years ago when Langer was faced with a similar putt at Kiawah Island to win the Ryder Cup.
The 18th green was surrounded by a mass of faces frozen by tension. His team-mates, the opposition, wives, girlfriends, family, everybody it seemed that he had ever known was peering through that window of time with eyes fixed on his back. The same pressure squeezed Langer's putt wide. Kaymer imagined he saw a foot print across the line of his putt. He can't recall the roll of the ball. Only the sound it made hitting the back of the cup. The Ryder Cup was won and he was back at the heart of the narrative.
"It's a completely different level from my victory at the PGA. The major win was just for myself, but I can see the guys behind me, my brother was here and my father was here, Sergio [Garcia] ran on to the green. It's so much more behind me. Now I know how it really feels to win the Ryder Cup. This was a year-changing development for me. Everything seems so much brighter and more positive for me now."
For that, he has Langer to thank. Kaymer shares much of the quiet dignity inherent in his countryman. He talks with the same sensitivity about the game. It is clear he loves and respects golf every bit as much as Langer, and understands that to truly appreciate its gifts, golfers must pass through the ringer. Kaymer returns to the fairways in Scotland this week at the Dunhill Links Championship, where he won at the height of his powers two years ago.
How much greater are the chances of repeating that victory after Sunday's adventure?
"It is great when you have someone like that [Langer] you can turn to. I took his advice, and you can see the results."
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