PINEHURST, N.C. — A statue of the late Payne Stewart graces the back of the 18th green at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club No. 2 Course.
It might be something worth visiting for Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who holds a five-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 114th U.S. Open on the same grounds.
Stewart knew something about how to protect a final-round U.S. Open lead at Pinehurst No. 2 — against the best golfers in the world. He held off the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh to win his third and final major championship in 1999.
Being the overnight leader at the U.S. Open has proven to be one of the most stressful positions to hold in professional sports. Many have done that; few have come out the other side holding the big trophy.
With old Pinehurst No. 2 regaining some of her teeth — drying conditions made the humpback-shaped greens a bit more challenging Saturday — much of the field, including Kaymer, struggled to make birdies.
In fact, Kaymer stumbled much of the third round, but was seemingly bailed out on two crucial holes — by an eagle at No. 5 and by a finishing birdie at No. 18.
Kaymer posted a 2-over-par 72, but only lost one shot off his 36-hole lead. He sits at 8-under 202, and leads Americans Rickie Fowler (67) and Erik Compton (67) by five strokes.
Two big hitters — American Dustin Johnson (70) and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (70), the reigning FedEx Cup playoff champion — are tied for fourth at 208, and trail by six shots.
The only other man under-par is Brandt Snedeker (72), another American. He is in sixth alone at 209.
The final round Sunday is expected to be more about what Kaymer does — or how he handles the nerves — and less about what the chasers are capable of. If Kaymer shoots anything around par, he wins.
“I look at it similar to what Bubba (Watson) was doing at the Masters,” Fowler said. “He was so far out in front that you can’t focus on him. I can put myself in contention with the rest of the group — and see what Martin does.”
Two snippets of history might give the field some faint hope. Consider:
—The last time Kaymer held a large lead heading into the final round, it was at the 2008 BMW International Open in Munich, Germany. And he lost all of his six-stroke advantage before defeating Denmark’s Anders Hansen in a sudden-death playoff.As far as Pinehurst No. 2, Stewart might have done well to win in the final group that Sunday. South Africa’s Retief Goosen wasn’t so fortunate in 2005. He blew a three-shot lead after shooting 81.
—Kaymer is not bullet-proof — and he showed that Saturday by making three bogeys in his first six holes.
But in the middle of that, he made an eagle at the uphill par-5 fifth hole from the left sandscape area. He ripped a 7-iron from the tall grass that trickled to within 3 feet on the elevated green, and made the putt.
“That second shot … was an OK shot,” Kaymer said. “It just got lucky because the front of the slope killed the flight a little bit, and it released to the hole.”
There was nothing lucky about Kaymer’s finishing hole. After bombing a big drive up the center gap, he flushed a short iron just past an accessible pin — and sank the 6-footer for birdie.
“The biggest challenge (Sunday) is that you keep it going, that you don’t try and defend anything,” said Kaymer, who is vying to become the seventh golfer to win the U.S. Open as the wire-to-wire solo leader.
If someone is going to prevent a European golfer from winning the U.S. Open for the fourth time in the past five years, he might need to follow the Saturday game plan of Fowler, or even Compton.
To apply the heat, make birdies. Those two combined for 11 birdies Saturday.
Compton might be sort of a sentimental favorite. He is a three-time heart transplant recipient who is in search of his first breakout tournament title.
And two weeks ago while at The Memorial Tournament, Compton got a pep talk from tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who told him his game should fare well at Pinehurst No. 2.
“Everybody in the top 10 has won a tournament or won a major,” Compton said. “If I go out and shoot 90, I don’t think anybody will be surprised. But if I shoot 67 again, you may be surprised.”