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.

As it is, only six players are under par, and there was some consternation over the setup Saturday. Phil Mickelson, who said he didn't have a problem with it, noted that the pin positions were so difficult, only at the 18th hole did he feel he could truly go at the flag.

"I think they've got to know that we're teetering on the edge," said Matt Kuchar, whose round of 71 left him eight strokes back, in a tie for seventh. "And you don't want to have a Shinnecock [2004] all over again. It's close.

"I expect conditions to be really, really challenging, more so than today. That makes birdies awfully tough. Pars are fantastic. It's hard to catch up just by making a bunch of pars. It's going to take a guy shooting 4- or 5-under, one of those amazing rounds, to have a chance."

And it will likely take Kaymer backing up. He did that Saturday, but only slightly, in the end his lead being cut by just that single stroke. Under the circumstances -- and he played with Brendon Todd, who shot a 79 -- it was impressive.

But let's put things in perspective: If Kaymer, Fowler and Compton all shoot those same scores Sunday, there will be a three-way playoff Monday.

"I feel like the course instructs you where to hit it," said Justin Rose, the defending champion and the only major winner among the top 15 players chasing Kaymer -- although he is nine strokes behind. "If you start going at flags -- the chasing pack has got that dilemma. They need to make up shots, but they know they can't get too aggressive around here.

"Martin is playing the same strategy as the guys trying to chase him. I don't know if that plays into his hands or that doesn't. If he starts making mistakes, things get a little tense out there. I feel like there's only one way to play this golf course and that's fairly conservatively."

Kaymer, 29, does not appear to be a man who is tense. Much of that likely has to do with the fact that he feels comfortable with his game, with his swing, after a few years of struggles as he worked on changes after making it to No. 1 in the world.

And then there is his experience. His victory at the PGA Championship four years ago in a playoff over Bubba Watson stamped him as one of the game's up-and-coming players. He was just 25 at the time, but uncomfortable that his arsenal of shots was lacking. So he went to work on it, and now he is 18 holes away from becoming the first player to win the Players Championship and U.S. Open in the same year.

He can also draw on perhaps the most intense moment of his career, when he made the 5-foot clinching putt at the 2012 Ryder Cup on the 18th green. Had that putt not gone in, the Americans might very well have defeated Europe that day.

"I like to be in control of things; it's the way I think a lot of Germans are," Kaymer said. "But at the end of the day, you have to feel on the golf course. You have to create that feel and trust your skill and all the work.

"It's about that feel, that touch, that you play with your heart, that you can't control too many things. That's what I was trying to do the last three years. Now I just play."

And for three days at least, it has worked beautifully at Pinehurst.