Back-to-back rounds of 65 have seen Martin Kaymer bring Pinehurst No. 2 to its knees by seizing a massive six-stroke lead entering Saturday's third round of the 2014 U.S. Open.
We still have to wait until those nearest to Kaymer tee off, but monitoring the early scores provides some idea of what to expect when the leaders get underway on moving day.
With the way Kaymer has run away with this championship so far, players will have to deploy an aggressive strategy while avoiding the perils that await at every corner at this difficult major test. Easier said than done. So is posting a record 10-under par at a U.S. Open, which is what the former world No. 1 in Kaymer has achieved.
One of the biggest stars in pursuit is Rory McIlroy—nine shots behind at one under. McIlroy blew out the field at Congressional in 2011 at this event, winning by eight strokes in the end. He has some idea of how to handle this type of situation, per GolfChannel.com's Ryan Lavner:
If I was Martin, hopefully I would be thinking about how to get seven ahead, and then how to get eight ahead, and then how to get nine ahead. Especially on a golf course like this, you can’t go out trying to protect anything. You’ve got to keep the foot to the floor and just keep it going. … If you get defensive, it’s detrimental.
It's going to be interesting to see if Kaymer can keep his foot on the gas. If so, the rest of his competitors may be too demoralized to make up any ground. If here is a low number out there, perhaps we'll witness it in the early wave.
Pinehurst figures to firm up as Day 3 progresses. That's also something to bear in mind as we take a look at the top scorers on the course among those who are, quite frankly, trying to salvage a strong U.S. Open result at this point.
Sergio Garcia: -1 through 11; +3 overall
There is hope. Garcia isn't faring as well at Pinehurst this time around after tying for third in 2005. Granted, it's a far different layout, but now the Spaniard is flashing fine form in being the only player under par on the day thus far.
Excellent ball striking has aided Garcia his entire career. Where he's improved in recent years is with the putter. Until Saturday, though, he hasn't quite brought his A-game to the season's second major. In an otherwise solid 2013-14 campaign, that has to be quietly disappointing.
Perhaps an ailing knee is partially to blame, though Garcia wouldn't use it as an excuse following the first round:
Regardless of his health situation, there's no sign of give-up in Garcia after bogeying two of his first three holes to start Day 3. He is putting together a remarkable round of golf on moving day, with birdies at Nos. 9 and 10 vaulting him up the leaderboard. Whether it will be enough to even be within striking distance of Kaymer remains to be seen.
USA Today's Steve DiMeglio encompassed Garcia's round and Kaymer's chances of being had, responding to Lee Westwood, a player who, like Garcia, has surprisingly been unable to capture major golf glory:
It will likely take a blowup from the German star to allow anyone over par overall to catch him. What can be inferred from Garcia's round is that there is a red number out there, presuming a player is firing on all cylinders.
Zach Johnson: +2 through 15; +7 overall
This is more like what a U.S. Open should be like. No one on the course is breaking par save for Garcia, with Johnson sporting the best mark in terms of score and how deep he is into his round.
The former Masters champion doesn't have a game suited for a longer Pinehurst No. 2 course, but the lower humidity, tight lies on the pristine turf and slick putting surfaces compensate for that. Johnson has adjusted well in keeping his score around par for the day.
Rick Brown of The Des Moines Register noted how fortunate Johnson was just to make the cut on the number:
A lone birdie at the par-five fifth hole has been offset by three bogeys. Johnson obviously has too much ground to make up to catch Kaymer, yet it is a testament to his resolve that he's continuing to grind. The fact that Johnson is in line for a better score than in Round 2 shows just how well he's playing on Saturday.
Now the key is to get into the clubhouse, focus on improving his position as much as possible in the final round and likely watching the rest of the field regress back to him. By the end of the third round, Johnson will enjoy a huge boost, as few should even be under par through 54 holes.
Nicholas Lindheim: +2 (72); +7 overall
Part of what makes a U.S. Open so compelling is in the name—it's open. Lindheim is not a PGA Tour regular. In fact, he ranks 163rd on the PGATour.com money list this season.
But he did enough to qualify for Pinehurst. Now that he's living out his dream, he's capitalizing on the opportunity. The Spartanburg Herald Journal's Eric Boynton documented the damage done and how excellent Lindheim's Saturday display was at its apex:
If not for several big numbers, Lindheim would have been even better off. At least he can take solace in the fact that he should have one of the best third-round scores of anyone.
Lindheim carded a 72 to start the tournament as well, but that included a triple bogey. His good walk around Pinehurst was spoiled a bit with a double bogey on the par-four 16th, followed by a bogey at No. 17. A par at the last helped him stop the bleeding toward the finish of what had to be an exhausting ordeal.
Pars are once again at a premium in the U.S. Open. Kaymer might even take a 72 Saturday and retire to his abode with an even bigger lead. Unless he shoots something north of 75—which is very possible, even with how wonderful he's played thus far—Kaymer seems firmly in control.
With how much of a mental test this championship is, though, anyone can catch up. It will just take an extreme set of circumstances for it to happen. Someone as relatively inexperienced as Lindheim on this type of stage managed to scratch out a solid number. That should inspire hope for those with little of it to hold on to due to Kaymer's dominance to date.