U.S. Open leader Martin Kaymer (2-over 72 on Saturday) had his share of harrowing moments on Day 3, but an eagle on No. 5 and birdie on 18 eventually brought his score above the field average (73.82).
PINEHURST, N.C. — It’s often been said that a person’s eyes represent a window to their soul.
But in the case of Martin Kaymer, the wire-to-wire leader of the 2014 U.S. Open after three rounds (54 holes), it may be easier to gauge his under-pressure personality by simply asking about a chance encounter with a squirrel.
Here’s the scene: During Saturday’s round, Kaymer had repeatedly flirted with danger, through a series of missed fairways and squandered birdie opportunities. But while playing at the 15th hole, Kaymer was seemingly on the brink of pulling things together and perhaps finishing with an even-par 70.
That is, before he engaged in a friendly, but territorial battle with the aforementioned squirrel.
When queried about the meeting at the 15th — a hole Kaymer would eventually bogey — the one-time majors winner (2010 PGA Championship) affably smiled and said: "Oh, the squirrel? I mean, they live here (in the Pinehurst woods). We are just distracting their home."
At this point, it’s going to take more than a feisty woodlands creature to derail Kaymer’s chances of winning this U.S. Open. Yes, he floundered a bit with Saturday’s 72 (2-over par) … but it still trumped the Day 3 field average of 73.82 strokes.
And through it all, Kaymer, who established a 36-hole record at the U.S. Open on Friday (lowest aggregate score: 130), still leads the tournament by five strokes (over Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton).
"I made three bogeys the first six holes. Therefore, I (eventually) kept it very well together," said Kaymer, who is currently one of six golfers below par. "I didn’t play as good as the first two days. Today … I think the USGA, they listened (Friday), unfortunately, and they put the pins in very, very tough positions.
"I think 18 was the only pin where you could be aggressive. The other flags, if you hit it to 25 feet, it was a good shot."
On the flip side, Brendon Todd, Kaymer’s playing partner, struggled mightily at Pinehurst, carding a 79 and tumbling 28 spots down the leaderboard (from 2nd to 30th).
In the first seven holes, Todd tallied one birdie, one double bogey and four bogeys.
"I wasn’t trying to shoot 65, I was going out there to try and shoot a solid round and see what happens," said Todd, who will be paired with Phil Mickelson on Sunday. "I was really still playing for pars. And they were just that difficult for me to get."
Kaymer, in turn, had a few seminal moments on the day: His bogey at the par-4 4th hole could have easily ended up as a 6 or 7 — thanks to an errant tee shot and subsequent difficulty with the sandy regions left of the fairway.
"The struggle was I didn’t really understand the English that the referee was trying to tell me," said Kaymer. "So I said to my caddie, ‘You have to take over here,’ because he speaks better English than me, even though he’s Scottish.
"So it was an unplayable lie, really. I was hoping for a free drop, but didn’t get that one."
On the green, Kaymer was staring at a 25-footer for bogey, a putt that few of his fellow pros would have made on this day. But he coolly drained the putt and exalted from the moment.
The positive vibes carried over to No. 5, where Kaymer eagled the par-5 hole with a simple 15-foot putt serving as the culminating shot. It would serve as his only below-par experience for the next 12 holes.
At 18, Kaymer put some distance between himself and the other below-par challengers, making a 15-foot putt to clinch his first birdie of the round.
On earning birdie over par, Kaymer said, "it’s only one shot. If you lead by three, four, five, six, seven shots, at the end of the day … the biggest challenge is that you keep going, that you don’t try to defend anything.
"If you try to (swing defensively), then you change your game plan and you don’t swing as free as usual. So that would be (my) biggest challenge (for Sunday)."
From a numbers standpoint, Kaymer and Brandt Snedeker (1-under for the week) currently share the tournament lead for birdies with 12 each. Digging deeper, Kaymer hit 10 of 18 greens in regulation (above the Saturday field average) and reached 10 of 14 fairways (also above the Saturday field average).
Kaymer, who’ll be joined by Rickie Fowler for Sunday’s final pairing, then added: "Five shots. I started (Saturday) with three bogeys, so that (lead for Sunday) could be gone quickly."
Fowler, one of only two golfers to break 70 on Saturday (3-under 67), doesn’t hold any public proclamations of overtaking Kaymer on Sunday. But he isn’t conceding defeat, either.
"The greens are fairly receptive when you are playing out of the fairway or if you have a clean lie in the native area. So the big thing is good ball-striking, to have control of your golf ball and landing it in the right areas," said Fowler, who strangely only connected on six of 14 fairways Saturday.
"… If you hit good shots and have control of your golf ball, it’s definitely a playable golf course right now."