Being Number One

What he does admit disturbed him was the reaction to his becoming world number one. Compared to the sport’s traditional heartlands, a successful German golfer lives in relative anonymity. That changed when his Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship win and runner-up finish at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship thrust him above first Tiger and then Lee Westwood.

Looking back at that period immediately after his WGC-HSBC Champions win in November, Kaymer told a packed press conference why it was a struggle.

“It was a tough stretch of months, because it’s not normal that at my age you become number one in the world. All of a sudden, you have more attention: Doesn’t matter really where you go. In my own country, I became the German golf face. In America, a lot of people recognised me because obviously golf is a little bit bigger in America than in Germany. But it has been, you know, a little awkward situation sometimes, because I was just not used to be that much in the spotlight,” he said at the time.

With a little more time to consider, Kaymer says it wasn’t just how number one status affected him, but that it affected everyone to whom he was close.

“The whole thing in the beginning was very strange because no-one in my inner circle [had experienced it]: my manager had never had a player who was number one in the world; all of a sudden my family and me had more attention in Germany; and, the people I work with found it a little bit difficult to begin with. Now we know what’s going to happen,” he says, revealing just how high being number one again sits in his list of priorities.

“I will set new goals for the new year: to play well again in the World Golf Championship events and in the Majors. And for sure the goal is to get back to number one in the world, now I know how it feels to be number one; how to approach it and how to handle that position. Obviously it was fun and I learned a lot and I’d love to be back on top.”

Fearless Defender

Getting back to the top might depend on whether the current incumbent, Luke Donald, continues with his run of stunning consistency in 2012. All Kaymer can do is get back to playing at the level with which he bookmarked his 2011 season.

Of course he starts in his happiest of happy places, Abu Dhabi, where his domination could be described as Tiger-esque. Living up to such a fantastic record would eventually weigh on most players, but like Tiger, Kaymer seems to react differently: wins follow wins.

If you group together his three Abu Dhabi wins as one packet, three more of his career victories came in three successive appearances in 2010, when he sandwiched a victorious Ryder Cup appearance in between winning his Major and claiming the KLM Open and the Dunhill Links, while his two wins in 2009 came in back-to-back weeks. That’s eight of his 10 stroke-play wins since earning his European Tour card neatly bundled in bursts of unbridled confidence.

When you consider all of that, it’s no wonder that once again facing all the attention that comes with defending his title at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

“I don’t think it’s more pressure at all. If you’ve won a title there shouldn’t be more pressure at all. It should give you even more confidence to do it again because you know you’ve been successful at that golf course already, so it shouldn’t add any more pressure. I don’t feel that at all. I really like defending titles because if you’ve got all that good experience from the previous year I think it gives you the belief that you can win again. I can approach the tournament in Abu Dhabi with a very, very positive mindset.

“It could happen that I don’t win this year – I could not even finish top 10 there this year – but the combination that I come from a long break and am motivated to play again, that you go to a golf course where you’ve been successful and a golf course that you know very well and that you feel very good about… The last four years worked out quite well for me, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2012. The predictions are quite good.”

This year he will have to overcome the best field he’s ever faced in Abu Dhabi, and what organisers say will be the best ever assembled in the Middle East, as well as his own hero.

“It’s great for Abu Dhabi that Tiger Woods is coming and more international players are coming from America. Last year Mickelson played and it proves how good that tournament is and how much fun it is to be in Abu Dhabi and play the HSBC tournament. It’s not making it easier to win there, but I’m not going there to pick out an easy win. It’s nice to have the challenge and see if I can win again.

“Tiger Woods, in the last couple of years maybe he didn’t play great golf, but he’s played unbelievable golf since 1996, since he first came to the Masters. He’ll always be one of the big players at any tournament he goes to. He’ll always be great for us players as well, to have him there,” says Kaymer, who was almost in awe when he learned after his Abu Dhabi triumph in 2011 that he had passed Woods in the rankings.

“It was something very special; he’d been number one in the world for around eight years and there was no-one really close, ever. Then all of a sudden you overtake the best player who ever played the game,” Kaymer marvels.

“It felt a little unreal, but it also told me that I was able to do things that I maybe thought I wasn’t able to do in the beginning.”