Martin Kaymer's been there, done that
DORAL, Fla. -- When Martin Kaymer became the No. 1 player in the world after finishing second last February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he received a congratulatory phone call from Bernhard Langer, who had been at the top of the world ranking for three weeks when it was introduced in 1986. Langer told his fellow countryman to keep his circle of intimates small and to continue honing the skills that had gotten him to the top of the heap in the first place.
The Dusseldorf, Germany, native had won the 2010 PGA Championship. He rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq shortly after that win at Whistling Straits. He'd done all the media in New York. But being No. 1 in the world carried a different weight. It's the closest thing that golf has to the Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion.
"To be No. 1 is a big deal," Kaymer said. "You're the best golf player in the whole world."
A year after his ascent to the top of the world ranking, which he held for eight weeks, Kaymer is here this week at WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, where his best finish was a tie for third in 2010.
Like everyone in the golf world, he has followed Rory McIlroy's incredible rise to No. 1 over the past two weeks. He's read the reports of McIlroy signaling a new era in the game. But as a former No.1 and the present No. 4-ranked player in the world, he has a unique perspective on the challenges that McIlroy is facing with the new level of fame, notoriety and pressure that comes with that lofty achievement.
"I hope that Rory can handle it in a nice way and I'm sure that he will be fine as long as he sticks to his priorities and continues working on the main things and not get distracted by things off the golf course," said Kaymer, who was a teammate of the 22-year-old McIlroy on the victorious 2010 European Ryder Cup team. "He's very humble and down to earth.
"He knows exactly what he wants to do and the way he wants to be. So he has very strong character. He's a very brave player. He's the best player in the world and he deserves the spot."
Yet with so much parity right now at the top of the ranking -- Luke Donald and Lee Westwood could both take over No. 1 in the world if they win this week -- Kaymer is careful to not anoint McIlroy as the next Tiger Woods, a player who created a wide distance between himself and the rest of the players during his 623 total weeks at No. 1.
"At the moment it's very difficult to separate yourself from the rest of the players," Kaymer said. "There are four or five guys who play consistent every week. So there is no one who has really been outstanding. Rory has been great, but so have Luke and Lee.
"You have so many good young players up there now. Every week it is so difficult to win a golf tournament because it is so tight. But if you look at the top players, they practice so hard. It's motivation and inspiration for you that you have to work even harder. But there is never really an end, so you keep working harder and harder every day."
Last February after supplanting Westwood as No. 1, Kaymer felt the intense pressure to live up to everybody's new expectations of his game. He was a favorite going into the Masters, but he missed the cut. He wasn't comfortable drawing the ball with his driver, a shot shape that he needed at Augusta National.
"At the beginning you obviously feel some pressure," Kaymer said. "When I look back at how many years Tiger was No. 1, I'm very impressed because I know how much pressure it is every week to play tournaments with that title. I know that Lee and Luke felt similar."
In November, Kaymer had nine birdies over his last 12 holes to win the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai. In four worldwide starts in 2012, he missed the cut, tied for 13th and had two ties for ninth, including one at the Accenture Match Play. He plans to play in 10 or 11 events in the U.S., where he has a place in Scottsdale, Ariz. As far as Augusta, which will be his next event after Doral, he feels as good as he's ever felt about his chances of competing at the mecca of golf.
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"It's still a long process, but I feel better about my swing and shaping the ball," he said. "Every year that I come to the Masters I feel better, shot-wise. I have more options."
Kaymer, 27, likes his chances of getting back to No. 1 in the world.
"I think my long game is good enough," he said. "I just need to get a little better around the greens. After that, it's not really a limit."
The next time he gets there he would like to extend his stay for much longer than eight weeks. Yet he concedes that holding down No.1 is more than just how well one performs on the golf course.
"Off the golf course everything has to work together as well," Kaymer said. "You have to be fine with your family, your girlfriend. It's very difficult to get everything in sync. So I hope that Rory can sort it all out.
"I was invited to a lot of new things. You get invitations to events that you want to go to, but it takes away time from your practice. But it's a balance that you have to find. I wouldn't do anything differently, but I would organize things a little bit better and I would think more about my time than just agreeing to any appointment."
With no cut this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, the field of 74 players gets to brave the unpredictable winds at the Blue Monster for four days. This event marks the first time since last year's Masters that the top 50 players in the world ranking will all be in the field.
As Kaymer knows better than most, McIlroy, as No. 1 in the world, is the favorite to win this week. He's not supposed to have bad weeks.
"The pressure," Kaymer said. "It's always there. But it's a good thing."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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