Rally spells relief for Martin Kaymer

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For 14 holes Sunday, Martin Kaymer dulled down the Players Championship like C-Span. Sucked the drama out of Sunday like a Shop-Vac. Ruined a perfectly good final-round showdown with the Next Big Thing.

And then came the throaty rumblings of thunder and the flashes of lightning midway through his back nine at TPC Sawgrass. When he returned from the 92-minute weather delay, Kaymer wasn't Kaymer anymore and The Players Championship wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Dull became compelling. A 3-shot cushion became 1 shot ... and almost a Monday playoff. A win nearly became the kind of monumental collapse that earns a mention in your obituary.

So no wonder Kaymer had a look of relief rather than joy when his 3-foot, 7-inch par putt on No. 18 fell into the cup at the exact same minute that darkness fell on the course. Kaymer is 29, but by the time his Sunday ordeal was over, he looked older and wearier -- but only until they handed him a crystal trophy and a check for $1.8 million.

"It was quite a long week of pressure," Kaymer said.

His caddie, Craig Connelly, pocketed the golf ball from that final winning putt. And he isn't giving it back.

"I'll give him another one, keep that one," said Connelly, smiling. "No flies on me."

The reason, he said, is simple: "He's won the fifth biggest golf tournament you can win."

Kaymer hadn't won for such a long time -- since 2012 at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa -- and that was a 12-man field that didn't come within a par-5 of the quality of a Players Championship. Not long before that, he had shot a pair of grotesque 79s to miss the cut at the PGA Championship -- a tournament he had won two years earlier.

But last season was the low point. He put in the hours -- Kaymer spends so much time pounding balls on the driving range that the callouses on his hands often crack and bleed -- but his swing wasn't cooperating. The former world No. 1 couldn't seem to break through.

Kaymer arrived at TPC Sawgrass ranked 61st and as an afterthought of sorts. But Connelly knew better.

"His game was there [five weeks ago at the Shell Houston Open]," Connelly said. "I felt and he felt it was just a matter of time."

It was time Sunday, though it took a while. Kaymer had held or shared the lead after 18, 36 and 54 holes. And he had a 3-shot cushion when the air horns sounded late in the afternoon as the course was cleared because of thunderstorms.

"It was a shame that we had to stop playing because I was playing really, really good at that stage," said Kaymer, who began the day tied with the people's choice, Jordan Spieth.

To hear Kaymer at the time, he thought they were almost certainly done for the day. There would be a lengthy delay and even if they did resume play, he figured the players would be given at least 30 minutes to warm up. So he returned to the locker room and watched highlights with Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and several tournament officials.

Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was what Connelly said afterward: that Kaymer was used to playing in the 80-plus-degree conditions and then was stuck for an hour and a half in a 60-degree-something locker room. When play resumed, Kaymer had lost his edge and his perhaps his looseness.

Whatever it was, it showed. He double bogeyed the par-4 15th and suddenly his lead had been shaved to 1 shot over the fast-closing Jim Furyk.

As Kaymer and Connelly walked to the tee box of the par-5 16th, he told his caddie, "Wow, that went fast."

"Well, we're still in control of the tournament," Connelly replied.

Kaymer botched a birdie chance -- and an opportunity to exhale -- on No. 16. And the gap wedge he hit on the island green par-3 17th nearly spun off the putting surface and into the water. Instead, it settled into the apron gunk, where Kaymer left his half-chunked chip shot 28½-feet from the hole.

What's the German word for gag?

But Kaymer poured the putt into the hole like lemonade into a glass. Then he parred No. 18 in the last wisps of light left in the sky.

"And when I was standing over the putt, I just thought, 'It would be really nice to make that putt now,'" Kaymer said.

When it was done, Kaymer looked up in the air, pumped his right fist and hugged Connelly. He had survived. Survived golf's so-called fifth major. Survived the run by 20-year-old Spieth and the late run by the veteran Furyk. Survived whatever self-doubts he had.

"Well, the belief is always there," Kaymer said. "I knew that I could win a golf tournament again. It was not like that traumatic that a lot of people made it."

Sure, he can say that now. But had he gagged away that lead, lost a playoff -- or lost outright in regulation -- then you wouldn't have been able to measure the golf trauma by conventional means.

Kaymer joins Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott as the only players to win a major, a Players Championship and a World Golf Championship event. But that's a résumé item for another time.

For now, it is time to enjoy and savor the moment.

"He's come a long way from shooting 79-79 at the PGA Championship," Connelly said.

A long way. But worth the wait.