Jun 14, 2014 10:04 PM by Posted by Greg Smith
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. - Martin Kaymer made his first bogey in 31 holes, collected his first blemish on the inward nine and even took an unplayable lie.
And still the 29-year-old German will enter Sunday's final round of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club with a five-stroke cushion.
Welcome to Pinehurst No. 2, where the restored Donald Ross gem finally played like the U.S. Open layout everyone expected from the get-go.
Kaymer had played two near-flawless rounds, establishing a U.S. Open 36-hole scoring record (65-65-130) and matching the largest 36-hole lead in championship history (six) before Saturday's 2-over 72, which included five bogeys, one birdie and an eagle.
He sits at 8-under 202, five clear of the only two golfers to better par over the 7,422-yard, par-70 layout on a sun-splashed Saturday in the North Carolina Sandhills. Rickie Fowler and sectional qualifier Erik Compton both carded 67s and stand at 3-under 207.
World No. 2 Henrik Stenson (70) and long-hitting Dustin Johnson (70) share fourth at 208, with 2003 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Brandt Snedeker (72) the only other player in red figures at 209.
"A lot of things were happening today, but I think I kept it very well together, even though I didn't hit as many great shots as yesterday and Thursday," said Kaymer. "But overall it's a decent round."
Pinehurst No. 2 played decidedly more difficult than the first two days, in which the venerable course yielded 36 under-par scores, thanks partly to soft conditions from an overnight thunderstorm on Thursday. Greens were rolling a half-foot faster on the Stimpmeter (12 feet, 6 inches) Saturday and a few hole locations were extremely challenging.
Both Kaymer and his fellow competitor Brendon Todd, the former North Carolina prep standout who started the day six behind, putted balls off the green on their opening nine, leading to bogeys. Todd, a U.S. Open rookie who won his first PGA Tour event last month at the Byron Nelson Classic, fell out of contention with a 79.
The experienced Kaymer, owner of 10 European Tour victories and No. 28 in the Official World Golf Ranking, shook off an unplayable lie on No. 4 to convert a clutch 10-foot bogey putt. He immediately followed the hiccup with a 202-yard approach from the native area to 4 feet on the par-5 fifth to set up an eagle 3.
It was that kind of day for Kaymer, who is bidding to become the eighth player in championship history to win by going wire to wire, without ever sharing the lead. His bogey on the second hole was his first in 31 holes and only his second of the championship. His bogey on the par-4 13th was his first on the inward nine.
Just when people thought the former world No. 1 might crack under the U.S. Open pressure, Kaymer showed his mettle and poise by finishing strong with an 8-foot birdie at 18.
While a five-shot cushion appears safe, Kaymer knows there is one more loop remaining around the treacherous terrain, and anyone who witnessed the 2005 championship can attest that the 54-hole leader isn't guaranteed to hoist the trophy.
"The challenge tomorrow [will be] to keep going and not try to defend anything," said Kaymer. "If you try to defend, then you're not free enough. You don't swing as free. And that will be the challenge. So we'll see how it will react tomorrow, how the body feels, and how I handle the situation."
None of the eight competitors lurking within eight of the lead owns a major championship. Fowler, 25, has just one PGA Tour victory, the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship. The 34-year-old Compton, who survived a playoff at the Columbus, Ohio, sectional qualifier to make the field, has one Web.com Tour win and three other victories on the Canadian Tour (now PGA Tour Canada).
"I look at it as similar to what Bubba [Watson] was doing at the  Masters," said Fowler. "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. If he goes out and posts double digits, it's going to be impossible for us to catch him."
Six months ago, Fowler began an overhaul of his swing with noted instructor Butch Harmon. He has had mixed results in 2014 with a third-place finish at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, a tie for fifth at the Masters and a sixth at the Shell Houston Open. But he also missed the cut at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, shooting a first-round 80, and he failed to play the weekend at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago.
Then at the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week in Memphis, Tenn., he closed with three sub-70 rounds to tie for 13th.
"I'm definitely more in control of my golf swing and more in control of the golf ball," said Fowler. "Unfortunately, my results haven't showed it this year. I've been a bit up and down ... but it's definitely the best my game has been, and it's only going to keep getting better from here."
Compton reached 4 under midway through his round with four birdies over a five-hole stretch. The streak started on the dogleg-right seventh and ended at No. 11. He bogeyed 12, birdied 15 and bogeyed 16 to tie Fowler for the low score of the day.
"I felt comfortable today," said Compton. "I think yesterday I was a little more not at ease. The heat was getting to me. But today I didn't feel much adrenaline or pressure. I just kind of enjoyed the round."
Because he finished before Compton, Fowler drew the final-round pairing with Kaymer, and Compton will play with Stenson, who leads the field in greens in regulation (42 of 54), but has amassed 93 putts.
Kaymer has totaled only 84 putts, which is the main reason he sits atop the leader board and is poised to become the first German - and the first Continental European - to win the U.S. Open.
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to see how I feel, how I react to certain situations," said Kaymer. "Anything can happen. I can lead by seven or eight shots after nine holes. I can be down to all square. So it will be an exciting round. For me, personally, it will be interesting how I handle it."