It’s been 11 years since Martin Kaymer edged out Bubba Watson in a play-off in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits for his first major.
Since then, he’s bagged a US Open, sealed one of the greatest-ever Ryder Cup comebacks and climbed to world No.1.
In this exclusive interview with bunkered, the German looks back on that US PGA win and assesses where he sees the event’s position amongst the four majors in men’s golf.
Take us back to that week in Wisconsin at the PGA Championship in 2010 and tell us what you were thinking going into that week.
Well, my main goal that week was to qualify for the Ryder Cup team. I knew I was getting close and I may have even been set to qualify in the standings before the tournament. But I needed a good performance to secure my spot. I just wanted that place badly because, in 2008, I was invited into the side by Nick Faldo, which made me even more eager to get on the team in 2010. The only win that I’d had that year up to that point was in Abu Dhabi, but I’d been playing good golf all year. That said, it wasn’t really enough to secure a spot in the Ryder Cup team, so that was my main goal going into the week. I then made the cut, which ensured that it was pretty much a done deal for me that I was on the team. So, from Saturday onwards I was so relaxed, which definitely helped. To me, I felt like I had done the hard work.
What was your mindset as the tournament progressed?
Going into the final round, my goal was just to play a solid solo round of golf. I had in my head that if I played well enough, I could finish inside the top-10. If I’m honest, I didn’t believe that my mindset was there yet to win a major championship. I had only been on tour for three years at that time and winning a major in a short space of time was definitely not what I was expecting. But then, after seven holes, I think I was two- or three-under-par. Nick Watney, who was leading the tournament on the Sunday morning, had a tough start. As we walked down the seventh hole, Craig [Connelly, Kaymer’s Scottish caddie] and I saw my name on top of the leaderboard. At that moment, I thought that it didn’t really matter what happened for the rest of the day, I could say I was leading a major championship in my career. Then, Craig said to me, ‘Why don’t we try to win it?’ Honestly, that was the first moment where I felt like I could win the tournament and there was a bit of a mentality change as we started going for the win.
Take us to the play-off with Bubba Watson. That must have been a new experience for you?
The beauty was that I was very clear about what I had to do. It was no secret that Bubba was definitely one of the longer hitters on tour back then. We played the tenth hole in the play-off, which was a fairly short par-4 and I knew that there was every chance he would birdie that hole. I knew that I needed to pick up a hole or two in my favour on 17 or 18 to have a chance to win. My mindset was very clear about what I had to do within those three holes. I was not nervous as I often get asked. I was very calm about it. I had reached the play-off, so there was nothing to lose. I could only gain from the situation. That’s a very nice way of thinking and it also relaxed me a little bit in order to play well.
For somebody who has won it, how does the PGA Championship rank against the other majors?
If you ask any professional golfer what major they want to win the most, I think it would likely be either the Masters or the Open Championship. But I think any major championship that you win in your career takes on a special meaning to you. The feelings you have in those moments are unbelievable. You know, the US Open, the way I won it was completely different to the PGA Championship. It is a huge step in your career and a very proud moment. So, it would be very unfair to all the majors to actually rank them. For me, it’s definitely winning the US Open and the PGA Championship that stick out as my favourite memories from the majors. I mean, winning those are in my top-three achievements in golf next to the Ryder Cup. As I said, I didn’t have any plans to win the PGA Championship going in, so to come out the other side gave me great belief that I can win any golf tournament in the world. That feeling and that confidence is what comes with such a win, and I believe that is very important.
Some people argue that the PGA Championship lacks identity. What would you say the identity of the championship is?
I would agree with that. You know, the Masters is all about the history and the memories. If you talk about memories from big tournaments, it’s either the Masters or the Open Championship that gets mentioned. You remember certain things from these iconic events, and maybe you don’t remember as clearly what happened at PGA Championships. I wouldn’t give it more credit or less credit than the other three majors, I just believe that, for the PGA Championship, the difference is that there are more outstanding memories in the history of the Masters and the Open. For those two events, there’s a charm and a feeling that comes with them that just takes them to another level. You can’t replicate a feeling. You can’t just try to make a tournament feel a certain way.
You won in your next two starts after that first major win. Did you feel invincible at that point in your career?
It was a beautiful time of my career because my mindset was so clear. I said to Craig in those moments and, even today, that I didn’t need to play my very best golf in order to have a chance on Sunday. I just needed to play my natural golf game and that was getting me to the top end of the leaderboard on Sundays. It was a nice feeling, for sure. That mindset that I was able to harness was beautiful to have. And hopefully, I will get back to that position and that mindset soon. Achieving that sense of mindset is what every golfer in the world is working towards and I am extremely lucky to have experienced it and achieved great things.
You backed up that major win with a WGC title, the Players Championship and then the US Open win. There aren’t many players who have achieved that kind of success.
At that time of my career, I was playing great golf and was able to keep intensity levels up every week. Even in 2012 and 2013, I felt as if I was playing well, but my surroundings didn’t give me the capacity to play with the same freedom as before. When I turned No.1 in the world, I had other things to work out and to understand. Fortunately, in 2014, I found a good way to be myself again and to trust the way that I play golf. Winning the Players Championship gave me great belief that I had done some good work over the previous year-and-a-half in order to become a more complete, all-round golfer. I then backed that up with a US Open win, which was so nice to win a major being eight shots ahead. That was really good for my confidence, as you can imagine. That four-year stretch between 2010 and 2014 was no doubt the best of my career in many ways. I hope that I can once again put the puzzle together and can at least rediscover a similar mindset to what I had back in those years.
Do you worry that now you have passed the 30-year-old mark that your best golf is behind you?
I wouldn’t say so. I think until you’re 45 or so you have a good chance to win big tournaments. I really agree with Rory McIlroy on this topic. When you are a younger guy on tour, you almost play a little bit recklessly as you have nothing to lose. That can give you a bit of an advantage ahead of the guys who have already been out there for ten to 15 years. That could be one way of looking at why younger players are now having more success. But on the other hand, I believe when you’re in your late 30s, you can also use your experience in order to have an advantage over the younger guys. There are two ways of looking at it here and I think both angles have their positives.
Did you appreciate what you were achieving over that sensational four-year stretch?
I think the beauty about having such a good stretch is that you just go. You don’t really reflect on your success too much. You find yourself in a zone and, when you win one, you move on to the next and want to win again. You just go with the pace of the tour and don’t think about it much. In those moments you are so clear in the head. For me, my mindset was very clear across all aspects of my life. There’s so much harmony privately, while in your work, there’s a clear focus on what you have to do. There’s very little hesitation in your process as what you are doing at that time is working and producing results and it gives you confirmation in your work and your ability. So, because you are so focused on continuing down the path of success, there’s not much time for reflection.
As well as those highs, you’ve suffered some lows. What goes through your mind when you are in the middle of a slump?
The biggest challenge is that you should not compare yourself to the past. It is important not to ask yourself why you are playing worse now compared to two or three years ago. Thinking about what you might have done differently is a normal question that you ask yourself. Because the doubt about your game starts creeping in, you start to worry that you won’t ever achieve that level of golf again. At the end of the day, I think it is the big picture that you need to see. It’s not all about the golf. Everything in your life should be calm and there should be only harmony to play well. How is your private life? How is your family? Is your mindset in the right place? Are you practising as much as you used to? When you are practising, are you doing the right things? These are questions that go beyond your golf game but do make a difference. It is so important to look at the doubts in your life. Once you have dealt with those, remain patient and, if you are good enough, then you will come back into form and regain that belief.
Could you put your finger on why your form tailed off?
My focus was lacking. I wasn’t happy with the way I was living life at that time and I didn’t get much from life apart from golf. I was practising in America, I was staying in hotel rooms and I was trying to live in America, but I was on my own. And yes, you can play some good golf in that time but you feel a little bit alone. Once that creeps in, then the golf game starts lacking as well, because you are not happy. That was the case for me. Then all of a sudden, I was searching to get back to being happy as a person and being a good golfer as well. That’s very difficult to do on your own. As a golfer, you need to do everything on your own. The move to America changed me as a person. I then decided to try and find a way to stay in Germany. I try to prepare as good as possible for tournaments but the flip side of being in Germany is that you lack the practice facilities as you know how good it is in America. That edge is missing. Those afternoons in America, where you can go do some putting or chipping for a couple of hours, just don’t happen in Germany. That makes a negative difference. So, I’m working on finding a plan that covers pretty much everything in my life. It’s very tricky.
Finally, tell us about your relationship with your caddie, Craig Connelly. You seem to be a really tight partnership.
I’m a better person with Craig on the bag. Playing-wise, I am absolutely better with him here. I just need that comfort around me. Craig takes a lot of pressure off of my shoulders by taking care of the things that I don’t need to worry about. That gives you the freedom and more energy to focus on the main thing, which is playing good golf. We’ve had very good friendship for the last ten years. I very much value him, not only as a caddie, but as a person. As a caddie, you need to understand your player really well and understand the human behind the golf player. I feel like I can talk to Craig about pretty much everything. He is good at sensing certain moods that I have on the course, which is a big thing. He is also very good at being with me and changing scenarios into positive ones. Craig has been with me for all of the successes, all the majors and the Ryder Cup experiences. So, he understands where I come from, and how I work. We’ve been a really good team whenever we have been together.
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This interview first appeared in issue 184 of bunkered (April 2021). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.