While Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar are all trying to become golf's new No. 1 at the 2014 Players Championship, it's a former No. 1 that's stealing the show.
Martin Kaymer, who was No. 1 for eight weeks back in 2011, has set course records on the way to a 12-under-par score after two days.
If you're surprised to see Kaymer at the top of the leaderboard, you're far from alone. The 29-year-old has fallen all the way to No. 61 in the world, and he hasn't won an event since the end of 2011.
This year, the German doesn't have a top-10 finish, and he hasn't finished in the top 10 at the Players Championship in his entire career. He has played the tournament five times before, with his best finish being a tie for 15th back in 2012. Last year he was tied for 43rd.
So what changed this week?
"I stopped thinking," said Kaymer, according to Mark Cannizzaro of The New York Post. "I thought a lot the last two years about swing changes, about this and this, that every shot I made I reflect on it, what I did wrong, what I did right. I just trust myself a lot more, and I stopped my thinking. The bottom line is I think less."
Perhaps we should all think less. Kaymer has been sensational through 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass. On Thursday, he shot a nine-under 63, which tied the course record. He set a record of his own on the front nine (his back nine), shooting a 29. He followed that up with a 69 on Friday.
After finishing his round early in the day on Friday, it looked like Kaymer might set another record on Friday with the largest 36-hole lead in the history of the Players Championship. However, 20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth caught fire on the back nine, and only trails the German by one stroke heading into the weekend.
Elsewhere, Phil Mickelson missed the cut at one-over par, and Rory McIlroy just barely made it through at even par. Of the players in the hunt for No. 1, Scott is at even par, Kuchar is at two-under par and Stenson and Watson are at three-under par. Russell Henley is currently in third place, just four strokes back, while there's a group of players at six-under par, including Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
But make no mistake about it, Kaymer has been the biggest story so far this tournament, especially considering what a non-factor he's been in big events lately.
Kaymer, who has spent most of his career on the European tour, rose to prominence four years ago. Starting at the 2009 PGA Championship, he finished in the top 10 in three of the next four majors. Then, at the 2010 PGA Championship, Kaymer out-dueled Bubba Watson in the playoff to win his maiden major.
The following year, Kaymer finished as runner-up at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and took over the No. 1 ranking from Lee Westwood. At 26, he was the second-youngest golfer at the time to hold the top spot (later surpassed by McIlroy) and only the second German golfer to reach those heights.
Of course, he was overtaken by Westwood two months later, and highlights have been few and far between since. He missed four cuts at majors in 2011 and 2012, and he hasn't had a top-30 finish at a major in two years.
As Randall Mell of The Golf Channel noted, the No. 1 ranking wasn't a comfortable place for the German:
When Kaymer reigned as world No. 1 for eight weeks in 2011, he wasn’t prepared for the weight of the ranking.
It overwhelmed him.
He suddenly felt disconnected to his game. That’s mostly because he felt so unworthy of the top ranking, so uncomfortable with it around his neck. With a stock fade, Kaymer didn’t believe he was versatile enough to be considered the game’s best player. There were other issues, too. There were expectations that seemed impossible to meet.
Even at his best, Kaymer still felt like his game had a lot of improving to do, so he began to work on changing his fundamentals. The fade shot was his staple, and he wanted to add the draw to his arsenal as well. But the more he tinkered with his game, the more uncomfortable with it he became. And the more uncomfortable he became, the more the pressures of expectations weighed him down.
Kaymer blames his German routes for his quest for perfection, via Cannizzaro:
It’s because of where I’m from: In Germany, we always look for perfection. This is just in my nature, I think. The expectation from yourself when you’re No. 1 in the world, you look for perfection. Everybody is expecting you to win every week, especially from my home country. Everybody expects you…you are the best in the world, so why didn’t you win?
It’s very difficult to deal with all those things.
Kaymer has been able to regain his confidence by going back to the game that took him to the top of the golfing world, and by letting go of his desire to be perfect. There is still a lot of golf to be played before a champion is crowned on Sunday evening, but the former No. 1 is in the driver's seat.
He's not one of the four guys in contention for the top ranking this weekend, but Kaymer has put himself in contention for the title. After all he has been through over the past three years, he'll certainly take it.
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