PINEHURST, N.C. — Golf is a funny sport. In baseball, nobody takes away your runs. Football doesn’t delete touchdowns once they’re on the board. But in golf, you can pick up strokes—or lose them—before you walk out of the locker room.
Before you swing a club for the first time in any round.
That’s because of how the other players are swinging.
A safe lead? You’d think Arnold Palmer six shots ahead of Billy Casper with six holes to play in the 1966 U.S. Open would have been a safe lead. Sorry. They tied, and Casper won the playoff.
How about Dr. Gil Morgan at Pebble Beach in 1992 becoming the first person ever to hit double digits under par—he reached 12-under—and, midway into the third round, moving into a seven-shot lead? The poor man went 17-over par the last 27 holes of that tournament and tied for 13th.
So while the fans and some pros are in awe of what Martin Kaymer has done the first two rounds of this U.S. Open at Pinehurst, making only one bogey on a course full of sand, pine straw and trouble, tying a record 10-under 65-65 for 130, and building a (gasp!) six-shot lead, concessions are not yet in order.
“You never know what will happen in a U.S. Open,” said Phil Mickelson, a living example of what has happened, primarily from his collapse in 2006. “We have always had crazy things happen. So you just never know. There’s a lot of guys ready to pounce if he slips up.”
Among the would-be pouncers are Brendon Todd, who is four-under 69-67 for 136, Kevin Na at 68-69 for 137 and Brandt Snedeker, who is 69-68 for 137. Then come a group at two-under 138, which includes one gentleman who knows all about squandering Open leads in Dustin Johnson, former PGA champion Keegan Bradley, Brooks Koepka, Brendon de Jonge and Henrik Stenson.
Another shot behind are Rory McIlroy, who set the scoring record when he stomped all over Congressional in the 2011 Open; Matt Kuchar, one of the betting favorites behind Mickelson and McIlroy; Chris Kirk and the kid who’s supposed to be the Next Great American Golfer, Jordan Spieth.
Mickelson, a runner-up six times in the Open, is at three-over 70-73 for 143, 13 back of the lead.
Can any of them catch Kaymer, who won the 2010 PGA Championship? Not the way the 29-year-old German has been playing thus far. “Incredible,” said de Jonge.
But Kaymer may not continue to play that way.
“I remember Rory at Congressional,” said Kaymer, “and wondered, ‘How can you shoot that low?’ And that’s probably what a lot of other people think of me right now.”
Indeed. “Martin seems to be playing a different golf course,” said Koepka.
Yet they’re also thinking somebody might make a run or Kaymer might take a fall.
Like Gil Morgan. Or Dustin Johnson, who, in the final round of the 2010 Open at Pebble—so much drama there on the bluffs above Carmel Bay—collapsed with a triple bogey the second hole, a double bogey the third hole and a bogey the fourth.
Adam Scott has won a Masters, but he’s also had his share of allowing leads to flutter away the final round of both the 2013 and 2012 British Opens. The man with the 54-hole edge plays uneasy.
Scott, well-schooled in the experience then, has his idea of the way to get himself into competition with Kaymer.
“If I drew up my perfect plan right now, over the next 27 holes, you would like narrow the gap to less than half of what it is," said the Australian Scott.
Scott is down by 10 strokes, a huge figure, but plus and minus, that’s only five Scott birdies and five Kaymer bogeys. Told you golf was funny.
“Anything could happen over nine holes at the U.S. Open,” Scott said. “So if I played great, and he continues to play great, I think I can narrow that gap and hopefully feel like I’m in contention come the back nine Sunday.”
The U.S. Golf Association normally toughens up a course as the Open proceeds. The number of scores under par then decreases each subsequent round. But an overnight thunderstorm softened the fairways and greens Thursday night and Friday morning. And, of course, the rough was removed from Pinehurst as part of the restoration of the century-old layout.
“Usually, the U.S. Open is going to be tight fairways, thick rough and fast greens, and this week it’s a little bit different," Kaymer said. "I think for us Europeans, or the guys from the U.K., we’re more used to these type of courses. I actually like the way it plays now.”
Not a surprise. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if he held the lead without ever letting go. Then again, there is Arnold Palmer and Gil Morgan to remind us of golf’s unpredictability.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.