No one plays the U.S. Open without hitting a shot that ends up somewhere unforeseen. Or worse, somewhere unbelievably unlucky. What happens after that helps define the golfer's competitive journey.
For two days, Martin Kaymer lived the charmed life of true bounces in the fairways while the rest of the golf world secretly longed for some drama or test of his fortitude to spice up the championship. Nothing against the good-natured Kaymer, but the U.S. Open has always been equal parts athletics, theater and demolition derby.
What this year's event lacked were screeching tires and white-knuckled angst.
And then Kaymer teed off on the fourth hole Saturday, and his shot came to rest against a clump of pine straw the size of a watermelon.
Finally, there was a turning-point moment in golf's most demanding crucible. Because there was virtually no way for Kaymer to advance his ball.
About three hours later, when Kaymer birdied No. 18 for 2-over 72 and a five-shot lead over Rickie Fowler (67) and Erik Compton (67) at 8-under 202, it was easy to say he had spent a third day capably and calmly holding on to an enviable position. But that would gloss over the trouble he encountered at the fourth and beyond.
"I played a good round, especially at the start," said Kaymer, who led after each of the first two rounds after shooting 65s, the best two-round score in Open history. "It's nice to have a lead, but it can vanish."
Kaymer had already ended a streak of 30 bogey-free holes when he bogeyed the second hole Saturday, his first of five on the day. It seemed of little consequence because no other golfer in the field was putting pressure on him. But standing in and near the pine straw discussing what to do at the fourth hole, Kaymer had multiple options and plenty of time to become flustered.
Instead, he wisely chose to declare his ball unplayable, which allowed him to move his ball two club lengths away with one penalty stroke. After tidying up, his ball was still nestled on a bed of pine straw. It was also in the woods, with tree trunks and low-lying branches in his way.
But Kaymer was far from rattled. He hit his approach shot to about 14 feet from the hole and made the putt for a spectacular, and important, bogey.
Kaymer said his only uncomfortable moment was when the applicable rules were being explained to him.
"The main thing is I didn't understand the English words they were using," he said, smiling. "I told my caddie he had to take over. But when the time came, I knew what I had to do."
Kaymer drained a 6-foot putt for eagle at No. 5 to get back to 10 under and a seven-shot lead. The margin dropped to as low as four after a bogey on 13 and again after a bogey on 15.
"I didn't play as good as the first two days, but I kept it very well together," Kaymer said.
Fowler and Compton, who has had two heart transplants, moved up the leaderboard with the only under-par rounds of the day. Brendon Todd, a PGA Tour rookie who was second after Round 2, six shots back of Kaymer, shot 9-over 79 to fall to 5 over for the tournament, and he wasn't happy with how difficult the course was laid out after two days of relatively soft conditions.
"Because we had a guy that was 10 under par (Kaymer), it was a little bit of a revenge day (by the U.S. Golf Association), I think," he said.
Facing a course with firmer greens and devilish pin placements, Fowler carded five birdies.
"If (Kaymer) goes out and posts double digits (under par), it's going to be impossible to catch him," Fowler said. "It's like a second tournament going on."
Compton, 34 and in his second major, has never won on the tour. "I think that my attitude suits a U.S. Open-style course," he said, "because I don't ever give up."