Facing a major challenge


PINEHURST, N.C. -- None of Martin Kaymer's closest pursuers have hoisted a major championship trophy. But they really have nothing to lose.

As much as Kaymer's chasers will be feeling the same Sunday heat and be swallowing the same humid, pine-scented air of North Carolina, they won't experience what he will endure. Not with a second major title well within his grasp, but 18 more treacherous holes to go at Pinehurst No. 2.

The soft-spoken, easygoing German will have slept on the lead for a third consecutive night, and that is never easy. Even a five-stroke lead -- an advantage at least that large has not been squandered at the U.S. Open since 1919 -- doesn't seem so big when you see the trouble lurking around this place.

"I am looking forward to see how I feel, how I react to certain situations," said Kaymer, who will be in the final pairing with Rickie Fowler, one of just two players to break par Saturday. "Anything can happen. I can lead by seven or eight shots after nine holes. I can be down to all square. So it will be an exciting round. For me, personally, it will be interesting how I handle it."

No doubt. Because how Kaymer deals with the situation Sunday could very likely define his career.

To let this major opportunity slip away after playing so well -- even in a 2-over-par round of 72 on Saturday -- would be crushing. To win, however, would put Kaymer at another level, with two major titles to go along with last month's Players Championship.

On a day when the scoring average was 73.821 and four players shot in the 80s and golf balls were traveling everywhere but where they were supposed to go, Kaymer appeared a bit more human than he had during his 65-65 start, when he made just a single bogey and took a six-stroke advantage into the third round.

And given that he had to take an unplayable lie at No. 4, bogeyed three of the first six holes Saturday, putted one ball off the green and hit just 10 fairways, it is something of a minor miracle that his lead was cut by just one stroke.

An eagle at the fifth and a closing birdie -- his only under-par scores of the round -- made a huge difference. And it will force the likes of Fowler and Erik Compton, who both shot 67 -- the only players under par Saturday -- to shoot something in the 60s again.

"You sort of have to play as if you don't get too defensive," said Rory McIlroy, whose 4-over 74 all but ended his chances. "And I learned that at the Masters [in 2011], the previous major before Congressional, if you get too defensive, it's detrimental."

McIlroy has some experience in this matter. When he won the U.S. Open in 2011, he held a six-stroke lead through 54 holes. But he pushed the advantage even wider and had a virtual stroll at Congressional for the final 18 holes.

The difference is Congressional was soft that week. That's why McIlroy set a U.S. Open scoring record. Not so here, where a high winning score was predicted and the conditions Saturday finally followed the plan.

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