Martin's March to glory
A year is not anywhere near enough time to let memories of your first win on Tour fade. Martin Kaymer, the genial German with the gifted golf game, returns to the scene of his maiden European victory next week, when he lands in the Emirates to defend his Abu Dhabi Golf Championship title.
Last January's events are, unsurprisingly, still fresh in his mind. Leading from the close of the first round, Kaymer held off the challenge of Tour veterans Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson to card a 15-under par 273 and land the coveted trophy by four shots.
"The first win is always very, very nice," recalls the German from his home in Düsseldorf. "I think the best memory was walking down 18 when I knew I had a three-shot lead and I couldn't lose the tournament to anyone.
"It was a weird feeling because I had never experienced it before, but it was all quite cool."
He may have never embraced the sensation previously, but Kaymer had come agonisingly close in his short time on Tour. Having turned professional in 2005, the then-19-year-old rose rapidly through the ranks, recording five wins in 14 outings on the third-tier EPD Tour before achieving two further victories in his first three months on the Challenge Tour.
Graduation to the European Tour for the 2007 season seemed a natural progression. However, Kaymer did not enjoy the best of starts, missing the cut in six of his first seven tournaments – the Singapore Masters the exception – before seven consecutive weekend appearances dissolved any lingering doubts in his ability.
A good second half to the year, which included a runner-up spot at the Scandinavian Masters in Sweden and another fine performance at Celtic Manor, scooped Kaymer the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award, but the 6ft-1in right-hander wanted more.
He got his wish two months later in Abu Dhabi.
"When you play good tournaments and you finish top five or top 10 it's always a great achievement and you're always happy with the result," confirms the 24-year-old. "But I think when you win a tournament you get that feeling that you've beaten everyone and that gives you a lot of confidence.
"You then know that you have what it takes to win tournaments."
With his win in the capital, confidence skyrocketed. Kaymer even admits that when he stood above his approach shot on the 18th at the Dubai Desert Classic, needing a miraculous score to force a play-off, thoughts drifted back to the National Course two weeks before.
"Because of the win in Abu Dhabi, I knew that I could win tournaments," he says. "That was probably the reason why I went for the green and an eagle on the last hole to force a play-off with Tiger Woods. But unfortunately he was three shots ahead so I couldn't affect the outcome.
"Though I would say my attitude changed from the win in Abu Dhabi."
Kaymer describes the Middle Eastern leg of the Tour, where the 'Desert Swing' takes in the UAE capital, Qatar and Dubai, as "the perfect start to the season".
He cites the immaculate golf courses, the organisation of the tournaments and the unrivalled hospitality as reasons to why it has proved a success with all the players on the circuit.
Few players choose not to participate in the region's trio of tournaments and the world No25 reveals "everybody is looking forward" to the opening competition in Abu Dhabi. He shares a special affinity with the course, after all.
But it was not all plain sailing 12 months ago. Holding a six-shot lead going into the final round, Kaymer seemed affected by the opportunity to engrave his name on to the famous falcon-shaped award. Nerves frayed and bogeys on holes four, five and six threatened to derail his march to glory, yet he held on to register his virgin victory.
"I think you automatically treat the last day differently," says the highest-ranked German on Tour. "I wanted to handle it as I did on the second and third days, but you're already thinking a little more defensively. You don't want to, it's just a subconscious thing.
"I was trying to stick to my game plan, but when you make bogeys on three consecutive holes and are then only two or three shots ahead, which isn't enough, you start to feel nervous. You're then just hoping to make a birdie to get a shot back and it becomes tough. If your game's not right on the final day then you've really got to keep it together.
"I was trying to concentrate on hitting fairways and greens – I didn't think about hitting flags anymore. I thought if I make birdie it's a big bonus and if I make par it doesn't hurt."
Kaymer wasn't fighting his inner demons alone, though. He had just acquired Justin Grenfell-Hoyle, the Australian caddy, in the off-season and this was their first competitive 72 holes together. The decision was soon vindicated.
"That was my first week with Justin and to get my first win made it such a good start for us as a team," he says. "On the back nine he said I seemed a little nervous between 10 and 15 and those holes were extremely important, so he talked me through them very calmly about small things and not necessarily golf. It was a big help."
The 2008 champion has prepared for his defence of the trophy in exactly the same manner as he did last year. After finishing the season early, the German spent a six-week winter break in America to fine-tune his game for Abu Dhabi and the inaugural Race to Dubai.
And as next week approaches, his mind understandably casts back to that first victory.
"I remember being really focussed until I made my second shot on 18," recounts Kaymer. "From then on it was just enjoying my walk towards the green, trying to enjoy everything.
"All the spectators were on the right and in the huge grandstand on the left, and everyone was clapping like crazy when I got to 10 or 15 yards from the green.
"Yeah, that was a pretty cool moment."
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