By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PINEHURST North Carolina (Reuters) - Martin Kaymer's astonishing dominance at the U.S. Open, on a challenging Pinehurst layout where only two other players finished under par, left his rivals purring in admiration.
More significantly, the German's eight-stroke victory at the year's second major has elevated him into elite company, and one can only wonder how much more the ultra-talented, hard-working Kaymer will achieve by the time his career is over.
Aged just 29, he has already claimed two major titles and been world number one, joining Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as the only players to do so before turning 30 since the official rankings were launched in 1986.
He became the seventh player to complete a wire-to-wire victory at the U.S. Open but his winning margin puts him in rare company with only Woods, Louis Oosthuizen and McIlroy clinching majors in such one-sided fashion over the past two decades.
Woods triumphed by a record 15 strokes in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, South African Oosthuizen coasted home by seven in the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews and McIlroy landed the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots at a rain-softened Congressional.
McIlroy has thrilled golf fans with his own electrifying talent over the past few years while winning two major titles before the age of 24 but even he was left shaking his head in amazement as Kaymer crushed the world's best at Pinehurst.
"I'm wondering how he did it," Northern Irishman McIlroy said after tying for 23rd at the U.S. Open on Sunday, finishing a distant 15 strokes behind Kaymer.
"I think I made a total of nine birdies this week, and I don't see any more out there. It's tough. Obviously, if you limit the mistakes, you might end up a couple under par for the week, because you're always going to make a few mistakes.
"But to do what he's doing is, I think it's nearly more impressive than what I did at Congressional."
Kaymer won his first major title in a playoff for the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, then became world number one in February 2011 before deciding to retool his swing in a bid to become a better all-round player.
While working hard to introduce a right-to-left draw to a game that had previously depended on a left-to-right fade, he endured a lengthy lean spell and his ranking steadily slipped to 63rd by April this year.
Throughout all those struggles, though, Kaymer never doubted that he would get back to where he felt he belonged.
"It shouldn't sound cocky or arrogant, but I knew it would come," said the Dusseldorf native, who was dubbed the 'Germanator' during his stellar 2010 campaign when he triumphed four times worldwide.
"I knew that I would play good golf again. There was enough belief there. I just didn't think it would take me that much time to get back to where I was.
"I think I play better golf now. I'm more of a complete player. It was just a matter of time. So it's not a huge surprise to me that I played good golf, it's just a surprise that I won such big tournaments. But I'll take it."
Kaymer, an 11-times winner on the European Tour, clinched his second PGA Tour title last month at the prestigious Players Championship, an event widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major because of the extraordinary strength in its field.
That win gave the German a timely confidence boost, and he effectively turned the Pinehurst U.S. Open into a one-man show after opening with successive scores of five-under-par 65 on a tricky layout to seize a six-stroke lead.
With a second major crown that lifted him to 11 from 28 in the rankings, Kaymer is eager to add to an already glittering career resume while he embraces the challenge of vying with young guns such as McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, and older hands like Woods and Phil Mickelson, in golf's biggest events.
"I was really looking forward to competing against them and to see who has the stronger and better nerves coming down the last five, six holes in big tournaments," he said of his thoughts while working on his swing in 2011 and 2012.
"We have some players who are a little bit more experienced out here, like Tiger, Phil and those guys, and then you have different players that are 10, 12 years younger. So it's very wide. So much is happening in golf right now.
"It's a lot to look forward to. And I'm only 29 years old, so I hope I have another few years ahead of me."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)