Up, up and away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am

The giant billboards along the way to the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club trumpet the presence in Asia this weekend of the sport's new number one for the Maybank Malaysian Open. The busy road is called the Sprint Highway, which seems appropriate when describing Martin Kaymer's rapid rise to the top.

This co-sanctioned event marks the German's first appearance on Asian soil since taking over at the summit of the official rankings on February 28 after finishing runner-up at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.

For Kaymer, the tournament is a poignant marker in the sand in what is already a standout career. Four years ago, as the world number 157, he slipped into Kuala Lumpur unnoticed, a struggling European Tour rookie. Money was so tight his brother, Philip, acted as his caddy.

With disappointing rounds of 75 and 72, Kaymer didn't get to play the weekend. It was the fourth of five consecutive missed cuts - the UBS Hong Kong Open was the first - in a bumpy start to his maiden year on the circuit.

'A lot has changed since I first came here because of what's happened over the past two, three, four years,' he said. 'To see myself on some boards being the number one in the world is a little weird, a strange feeling. But on the other hand it's a very proud feeling, too.'

Unlike his 2007 visit, Kaymer's abundant talent is no longer hidden beneath the surface. In the past six months, he claimed his first major title, become the first European to win three consecutive events in more than two decades, and played a key role as Europe claimed the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.

Yet even with his face on advertising hoardings and career prize money of more than Euro10 million (HK$112 million), the 26-year-old remains a low-key world number one, happy to fly under the radar whenever he leaves Germany. Beyond the golfing fraternity, he can walk around largely unnoticed in Asia, just like his countryman Bernhard Langer, who was the first man to top the rankings when they were first published in 1986. The same couldn't be said for other members of the number one club, including Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Nick Faldo.

'I am OK with that because obviously I haven't achieved as much as they did,' Kaymer said. 'Tiger has won 14 majors. He's the best athlete in the world so it's a little bit strange to compare myself with him. But if I keep playing the way I am and win more majors, who knows?'

Kaymer's upward surge has been almost as remarkable as Woods' fall from grace. And their paths seem to be linked, however subtly. Around the time of Woods' car accident in suburban Orlando in November 2009 that triggered a chain of events which hijacked his game, Kaymer was making a tentative comeback from two months out after breaking his foot in a go-karting accident. At the time, Kaymer was number 12 in the world, 11 places and almost 400 ranking points behind Woods. It's hard to believe that was only 17 months ago.

Kaymer began 2010 by winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship to build momentum for a stunning season that made up for his injury heartbreak the previous year, claiming the Race to Dubai to finish as Europe's top player, edging out Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. US Open champion McDowell and Kaymer were then named joint winners of the European Tour player of the year award.

A third Abu Dhabi title in four years in January saw Kaymer displace Woods from the number two position before he knocked off Ryder Cup teammate Lee Westwood from the top spot a month later. He won five times during Woods' victory drought, including his breakthrough maiden major title in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Despite overseas players claiming three of the previous four majors, the fans in Wisconsin were confident of cheering home an American champion, with Nick Watney taking a four-shot lead into the final day and Bubba Watson carding a closing 68.

But Kaymer sunk a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole before coming from behind to win a three-hole play-off over Watson.

'I didn't think I had a chance of winning the tournament - my goal was just to make the Ryder Cup team,' Kaymer said. 'After six or seven holes, all of a sudden I was leading one of the biggest tournaments we have all year. Then I said to my caddy, it doesn't really matter what happens today, it's already history for me.

'Winning a major is something you can't really describe. The next morning when you wake up, you open the newspaper and you see pictures of yourself. It's just a very proud feeling.'

But after major success came major disappointment. At last week's Masters, pre-tournament favourite Kaymer missed the cut for the fourth consecutive year after a disastrous opening 78 that raised eyebrows at the most scrutinised tournament of the year. His continued failure at Augusta National is a rare blemish on an otherwise immaculate CV.

'Some golf courses really suit your eye and some don't,' he shrugged. 'It is a very nice place and probably the best golf course in the world. But there are some holes that don't really suit my eye so you have to accept that. At the end of the day, it's just another tournament.'

After his impressive debut in a winning cause at Celtic Manor last October, Kaymer rates the Ryder Cup as one of his career priorities. He'll be watching with interest next month when a choice is made between Germany and France as the host nation for the 2018 competition.

Otherwise, he lists winning majors, staying number one as long as possible, and not being affected by success as the most important things in his life. A former talented schoolboy soccer player, he'd also like to find more time to watch his favourite club, FC Cologne, who sit mid-table in Germany's Bundesliga.

'One day I would like to be in the Hall of Fame but I know I have to do a lot for that, playing many times in the Ryder Cup and lots of majors,' he said.

'It's also important that I'm still the same person in 20 to 25 years, however many majors I've won and whatever else I've done. Because as professional athletes, we have a big opportunity to give something back to people, with very little effort.'


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