AUGUSTA // Martin Kaymer got a little jolt of adrenalin when he turned onto Magnolia Lane for the first time this year. He is the guy everyone else is chasing. He is No 1.
Then, back to reality.
The major season begins today at Augusta National, a course that has bedevilled the 26-year-old German in his young career. Three times, he has played the Masters. Three times, he has failed to make it to the weekend.
"I haven't done well here," Kaymer said. "But, you know, there's always a first time."
He already has had a couple of big breakthroughs. Last August, he won the US PGA Championship in a play-off for his first major title. Then, after an eight-shot romp in Abu Dhabi, he made the final of the Match Play in February to vault past Lee Westwood for the top spot in the world rankings.
"I wouldn't say it's important, but it's a nice feeling," Kaymer said. "I was not thinking that it would happen [this] soon. Obviously, my expectations, they were high, but I was not expecting myself to be No 1 by the Masters."
The top ranking comes with an additional burden. The world's best player is not supposed to miss the cut in one of the biggest events.
With that in mind, Kaymer decided to change things up, hoping a different routine might produce a better result at the Masters. He traded the PGA Tour event in Houston for a week at Sage Valley, prepping his game at a more leisurely pace on the Tom Fazio-designed course just up the road from Augusta National.
"Obviously, I didn't really play well here, never made the cut. So I needed to change something," Kaymer said. "If you miss the cut three times, then I think it cannot really get worse."
Indeed, it cannot get much worse. Kaymer has broken par only once in six Augusta rounds. Three times, he has struggled around the course with a score of 76. Never mind the back nine on Sunday afternoon; he has never made it to the front nine on Saturday morning.
What is the problem?
Kaymer once thought that his game just did not suit Augusta National. He has never been particularly adept at drawing the ball, producing shots that will bend gently from right to left on holes such as the fifth, the ninth, the 10th and the 13th.
He has thought about how much easier it would be to tackle the course as a left-hander, like the defending champion and three-time winner Phil Mickelson. "I wish I could play the other way around," Kaymer said.
Mickelson chuckled at the thought. "I would love Martin to play this tournament left-handed," he said.
"I don't think the golf course favours one side or the other. There are a couple of holes that I feel more comfortable on left-handed. But there are a couple of holes that I feel more uncomfortable playing left-handed."
Kaymer has settled on another reason for his Augusta woes. "I was not sharp enough in my short game," he said. "I missed a lot of short putts the last few years."
Kaymer grew up playing football. He was 15 before he decided to focus all his energies on one sport. Golf was his choice, but he still wonders where football might have taken him.
"I don't know if you would have seen me in 2006 in Germany playing the World Cup, but I think I would have been decent," he said. "Any sport that I approach, I try to become one of the best. That's just my nature."
Kaymer had a brilliant year in 2010, winning four events and breaking the European Tour record for earnings in a season. His confidence is off the charts, and he has not even reached the prime of his career. He just has to figure out Augusta National.