Martin Kaymer: Why this season is one of the most important of his career

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In his most candid interview yet, two-time Major champ Martin Kaymer opens up about the mental and physical battles that have left him winless since 2014, and battling to prove his critics wrong...

Despite being the defending US Open champion and a serial European Tour winner, Martin Kaymer never felt like golf's top dog. Even when the rankings said he was.

The German wanted more and in a bid to stop missing cuts at Augusta, he risked it all and changed his swing. The journey sparked a downturn in form, giving way to vicious rumours suggesting – incorrectly – that he was considering pulling out of the 2012 Ryder Cup because he was embarrassed by his game.

He was benched by Jose Maria Olazabal for the most part, but famously summoned the resolve to pour in the winning putt to complete the Miracle of Medinah. He had to wait another two years to taste victory again but when he did at the 2014 Players Championship, he backed it up by trouncing the field by eight shots at the US Open four weeks later.

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The Guardian claimed that Kaymer had completed his redemption after a period in the wilderness, but it proved premature. The trophy cabinet has been gathering dust in the four-and-a-half years since while he has tumbled down the rankings.

At the end of 2018, he had missed three times as many cuts (nine) as he made top 10s on the European Tour and dropped to World No.172. The German struggles to hide his frustration, and lets on that personal issues o the course have also contributed to his winless streak on it. He refuses to divulge what they are, but claims his only regret was rushing back from a wrist injury last year, just so he could play at the Masters. He missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs and Ryder Cup as a result, and only kept his PGA Tour card for 2019 by way of a special exemption.

He's now faced with losing his five-year exemption into the Masters, US PGA Championship and The Open after this season, so believe him when he says this year will be "one of the most important" of his career.

Your wrist hampered you for the first part of 2018. When did you realise that something wasn't quite right?

The first time I felt it was in LA, at the Riviera at the beginning of last year. That's when I felt something was a bit strange. And then at the Honda Classic in West Palm Beach, I was playing with Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk and they hit it 20 yards farther than me. I thought that was very weird. I had a bit of pain in my wrist and I couldn't really hinge the wrist. It just stayed straight. I went to the doctor and he said the bone has moved. So, he moved it back, and it felt quite irritated. I had to take some time off, returned at the Masters and spent the rest of the season playing catchup in terms of tournaments and practice.

How much did it affect your swing? Were you unable to hit balls?

Maybe for three to four weeks I couldn't play golf at all. My first week back was the Masters. I played fine, under the circumstances, but it was annoying because I had practised a lot during the winter. I was really ready to have a good season, especially as it was a Ryder Cup year. To be out of that rhythm for a while was frustrating, and then also not being prepared for tournaments as much as I wanted to be was hard.

Was 2018 your most frustrating season on tour?

Yeah, because I thought I was in good shape. The injury really held me back. Knowing that I needed to play a certain amount of tournaments on the PGA Tour, I rushed back and I wasn't fully prepared. I was playing at probably 60 per cent and wasn't quite healthy yet. Looking back, maybe I should have said, 'OK, I'm not ready to play the Masters this year' but you know, it's the Masters. You want to play.

[Changes: Kaymer started working with new caddie James Baker after parting company with Craig Connelly in september.]new caddie

Have you found it challenging trying to compete across both tours?

You make your plan at the end of the year for the next year, and then if you skip three or four events you need to put them back in somewhere. But if you're injured, you don't want to play too much. An injury is never good and the way I handled it was maybe not brilliant. But I've learned from it and maybe next time I will give myself some more time.

Is it true you also had an issue with your shoulder at the end of 2017?

It was my bicep tendon actually. It's strange because I never really had any injuries for 10 years. But our bodies are not made to be hit into the ground, 20,000-odd times or whatever. Once in a while, injuries do happen, especially with all the travelling. It's understandable but you need to treat these things right.

How much of a relief was it receiving a medical exemption to play on the PGA Tour for 2019?

It was huge to get that exemption. If you look at both schedules, you want to play on the PGA Tour between February and June. There are big tournaments and all the Majors are there. If you keep going backwards and forwards, travelling so much between Europe and the States, it would be really tough and tiring on the body. That's why I am very happy that I've got an exemption. It was up in the air of a while. Me and my team talked to Jay Monahan, sent some emails back and forth, and in the end he accepted it.

A lot of players like Rory McIlroy have been very outspoken about the new schedule for 2019. Do you see yourself playing mostly in America this season?

I think so. One of my first tournaments back in Europe will be the BMW International Open in Munich. Before that, you've got to look at the world ranking points. In order to get up, you need to play big tournaments where only the best players in the world play. On the European Tour you just don't have that possibility from February to June. From that point of view, you want to and should play more in America I think.

Also, how they structure the Majors and TPC Sawgrass means there's only three or four weeks in-between so does it really make sense playing a tournament in America, going to China or South Africa, and then coming back to America? It's really a no-brainer. It's tricky for the European Tour but if you look at your own schedule and health, you do what you do and when the FedEx Cup is finished, then you can support the European Tour.

[PGA Tour: Kaymer has played five PGA Tour events in 2019 so far, with a best finish of T33 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational]
martin kaymer at arnold palmer invitational

The way things are on the European Tour, do you think we're heading towards a world tour?

I think it's very difficult to avoid. If you look at the strength of the PGA Tour, the tournaments they have and where they go worldwide, they are already taking over, kind of, the Asian part. I don't know the ins and out of how the European Tour stands, but would I like a world tour? I honestly haven't thought about it but you would need to change your lifestyle a lot.

Are you a fan of innovations like GolfSixes and the co-gender tournaments that Keith Pelley has brought in?

No. I don't think it's good. I don't see a reason why you would want to play GolfSixes. It's just a fun event. But I do think Keith Pelley has done a really good job with the Rolex Series. That's been fantastic and a huge success for the European Tour, not only the best players but also the depths of the field, especially for those guys who have come from the Challenge Tour and Qualifying School.

Do you worry slightly about the future of the European Tour?

Something needs to change in that regard if you really want to attract the best players. Maybe the values and core of the European Tour. You can worry about it, but you also need to see it for what it is. It's the same thing in Germany. You can't make golf as big as football. It's just not possible. The European Tour needs to accept what's happening on the PGA Tour, and stay true and authentic to itself.

[Kaymer had three top-10s on the European Tour last season, and has a best finish in 2019 of T22 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship]martin kaymer abu dhabi

On a personal level, you've never been afraid of making changes, as illustrated when you got to World No.1 and changed your swing. If you had your time again, would you stick by that decision?

If you're brave enough to do it and not settle for something that works fine, but not quite well enough, then why not make a change? I wouldn't think twice. 

Does it irritate you, though, when people question why you made such a drastic change?

It doesn't irritate me; it just says more about that person's character. It's quite a safe belief. We all like safety but once you reach or achieve something, there's a voice inside your head asking, now how far can you go? I just couldn't go any further. I was No.1 in the world, playing that kind of golf, but never felt like the No.1.

Why did you never feel like the best in the world?

Because if you can't play Augusta the way it is supposed to be played, how can you? From the 10th tee, I was only ever on the top right side of the fairway. I was never down the bottom where everyone else was. I just could not hit the ball right-to-left. I missed the cut four times in a row, in 08, 09, 10 and 11. You cannot tell me that I was the best player in the world.

Do you now go to Augusta, feeling like you've got the game to contend?

Well, I've made the cut every single year since. To become a more complete player, it was definitely the right decision.

Do you feel like you've got something to prove this season, having not won since 2014?

People might be waiting for my success, but I don't think I have to or need to prove myself because I've done so much in my career already. I just want to have more success on the golf course for myself. I want to be part of the Ryder Cup team again and I want to compete in Majors again. That is important.

What do you put your recent struggles down to?

It's a personal thing I don't need to talk about. People will make a thing about it, just like they did with my swing change. Eight years later, people still talk about it and I don't want to answer a new set of questions in eight years' time. But I know the reasons why I haven't won and I'm very happy that I've found out recently why everything happened and I'm now really looking forward to the next few years. I'm only 33 years old and I'm sure I've got another 10 years ahead of me, which means 40 other Majors. If I can pick up, maybe, two or three per cent of those, that would be really nice.

Was it difficult not playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008?

Some parts were but on the other hand, I was OK with it. I didn't belong on the team. It would have been wrong to even play for the team or even think about earning a wildcard. I wasn't playing good enough golf. I was a bit sad that I couldn't be there, but it makes me want to get back there.

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Do you feel like your game is close to being in a position to add to your 11 European Tour titles and two Majors?

I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing right now, and my progress. I feel happier on the golf course, and more comfortable with my game. I know what I need to work on, a bit on the short game, but my long game is quite solid. There's just a few off the course circumstances I need to change. I need more harmony around me, which I'm getting with my new place in West Palm Beach. I can practice in Florida easily and get from A to B, playing on the PGA Tour. I think I've got a really good plan for 2019.


The High's and Lows of Martin Kaymer's Career 

June 2005
Collected his first professional win at the age of 20 as an amateur at the Central German Classic on the thirdtier EPD Tour. He went on to win another four times in the next three months.

October 2016
Finished his rookie year on the Challenge Tour with five tops 10s, including two wins, from just eight starts. His success placed him fourth on the Order of Merit and earned him a European Tour card.

January 2008
Two months after being crowned European Tour Rookie of the Year, he went wire-to-wire at the Abu Dhabi Championship, beating Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood by four strokes.

August 2010
Defeated Bubba Watson in a three-hole play-off at the PGA Championship to claim his maiden Major title. He made his Ryder Cup debut a month later, winning 2.5 points to help Europe win by one.

August 2010
Topped the inaugural Race to Dubai standings with four victories to his name, and earnings of €4,461,011. He also shared the European Tour Golfer of the Year Award with Graeme McDowell.

January 2011
Made history by notching his third Abu Dhabi Championship with an eight-shot victory. A month later, a loss in the final of the WGC-Match Play to Luke Donald took him to World No.1 for the first time.

November 2011
Signed for a nine-under par final round of 63 to overturn a five-shot deficit at the WGC-HSBC Champions event and complete the biggest comeback victory in WGC history.

September 2012
Failed to make a birdie in the opening fourballs of the Ryder Cup and didn't play again until the singles. However, it was his winning putt that helped Europe come from 10-6 down to retain the trophy.

June 2014
A month after claiming the Players Championship, Kaymer led all four rounds of the US Open at Pinehurst and won by eight strokes. He would go on to win the final-ever edition of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

January 2015
Threw away a 10-shot lead with 13 holes to play at the Abu Dhabi Championship, losing by two to rookie Gary Stal.