PINEHURST, N.C. -- Just when it appeared the U.S. Open was truly becoming an open tournament, along came Martin Kaymer to make it a one-man show.
On a day when many of the game's top players took turns hopping on the first-round leader board, it took a closing flurry by Kaymer, a former PGA champion and U.S. Ryder Cup-killer, to make the biggest leap.
Not only did Kaymer charge to the clubhouse with birdies on three of the final five holes, his opening 65 was the lowest round recorded in a U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. It all resulted in a three-shot lead over a crowded leader board heading into day two.
"It's only the first round and usually the golf course only gets more difficult," Kaymer said. "If you stay around level par, you can't be that far away from winning the golf tournament."
Kaymer gave himself a good cushion by making six birdies and only one bogey, despite hitting only 11 greens in regulation. But he made up for the missed greens by needing only 25 putts on Pinehurst's tricky turtleback greens.
One month after winning the Players Championship, the 29-year-old German made it look easy at Pinehurst by shooting a back-nine 31 to take a three-shot lead on 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Kevin Na, Brendon de Jonge and Fran Quinn.
"It's very nice to lead the tournament right now, but I was very surprised the golf course played soft because it was very firm Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," said Kaymer, who was ranked No. 1 in the world after his victory in the 2010 PGA Championship. "They must have changed something."
"I guess the USGA was really relying on some rain [Wednesday] night, which didn't come," McDowell said. "I'm assuming they put some water on this place this morning. And we were able to take advantage of that a little bit early on, and actually think about getting at some of those flags."
That certainly appeared to be the case when Brandt Snedeker went out early and birdied four of the first eight holes to get to 4 under. But, after missing a makeable 5-foot birdie at the par-3 ninth that gave him a front-nine 31, he went bogey-double bogey-bogey on the next three holes to get back to even.
"The course got me on the back nine," said Snedeker, one of 10 players at 1-under 69.
Kaymer's surge was made even more impressive because others could not do the same. Matt Kuchar, one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour, did not make a bogey for 15 holes and had the lead at 3 under until he bogeyed two of the last three to finish at 69.
"Good shots are staying on the green," Kuchar said. "Good shots are staying good shots."
He wasn't alone. Phil Mickelson, returning to the scene of the first of his record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, was tied for the lead at 2 under after a two-putt birdie from the fringe at No. 5, his 14th hole. But he bogeyed two of the last four holes to finish at par 70.
How congested is the leader board?
Mickelson is one of 20 players at 70. Before Kaymer's late surge, 69 players were within four shots of the lead.
"We had ideal scoring conditions, if that's a thing at a U.S. Open," said Jordan Spieth, who made four birdies in a round of 69. "The greens were more receptive. Four birdies, I think, is a lot in this tournament per round."
Nonetheless, it was not a good day for the past two Masters champions. Bubba Watson, who sounded fearful of Pinehurst's turtleback greens before the tournament even started, shot 76. Adam Scott, the world's No. 1 player, had 73.
"Around here it's hard to visualize some of the shots I like to hit," Watson said. "To shoot a couple over is not too bad, but to shoot 6 over is not where you want to be after one day."
Kaymer is where he wants to be after one round, and mostly because of the wave of confidence he is riding after winning The Players Championship. He showed his resolve at the Stadium Course when he made a bending 30-foot putt to save par at the par-3 17th hole, right after making a double bogey at No. 15 and a bogey at the 16th following a 90-minute rain delay.
Kaymer, though, is accustomed to making big putts. He made the winning putt on the final hole in the 2012 Ryder Cup that beat Steve Stricker and clinched Europe's stunning comeback victory at Medinah.
"The Players gave me a different status as a golf professional -- a lot of respect from people, a lot of respect from the players, a lot of satisfaction for myself," Kaymer said. "When you're very young, when you're 23, 24, you're coming out here, it's a career goal to win a major. And I got it done fairly early.
"You just grow a lot as a person with the things that come with it, not really the win, more like that what happens outside the golf course. So you learn a lot yourself and that makes you more mature and it takes some time to get used to that change."