A bad chip led to double bogey. A bad decision cost him a chance at birdie. With his lead suddenly down to one shot, he watched his ball soar against the grey sky toward the scariest island in golf and figured it would be fine.
What followed was a bounce sideways instead of forward, mystifying spin that nearly sent his ball over the edge and into the drink, a chip with his feet pressed near the wooden frame of the island and a 30-foot par putt that Kaymer chalked up to instinct and luck.
"It was a very strange way to make 3," he said.
But it was enough to carry the 29-year-old German to a one-shot victory over Jim Furyk in a final round filled with stress, emotion and a large dose of satisfaction.
Kaymer got up-and-down with his putter from short of the 18th green for one last par, giving him a 1-under 71 and his first victory in nearly 18 months. The only time he nearly lost his composure was when talking about his mother, Rina, who died of cancer six years. He has a sunflower, her favourite flower, on his golf bag. His brother, Phillip, sent him a text that he described only as a "very emotional."
"To win on Mother's Day ... we show our parents way too little," he said. "We always need some occasions to show them, which is what you realize when they're not there anymore. So to win on those days ... it adds a little bit of a nice thing to the whole week.
"I think about her every day. I don't need a Mother's Day."
Furyk closed with a 66, having to wait out a 90-minute rain delay to make a 3-foot par putt. It looked as though it might be enough to force a playoff, or even win outright when Kaymer started to struggle. Just as he did last week at Quail Hollow, Furyk could only watch on TV from the locker room and settle for second place.
"I did what I could," Furyk said. "I left it all on the golf course, and I hung it all out there today and every cliche you can think of. I played hard today."
Sergio Garcia (70) finished alone in third, though he never got within two shots of the lead at any point.
David Hearn of Brantford, Ont., finished in a tie for sixth.
That wasn't the case with 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who was tied with Kaymer going into the final round. He made his first bogey of the tournament on the fifth hole, and four more bogeys followed in his round of 74. He tied for fourth.
"I'm stinging right now," Spieth said, a runner-up at the Masters. "It's not fun being that close and having opportunities and being in the lead on Sunday and not pulling it off."
The typical stress that Sawgrass brings on Sunday was contained to the final hour, and it was almost more than Kaymer could take. He was sailing along until the lightning flashes and rain forced the rain delay. He had a three-shot lead with five holes left and was a different player when the round resumed.
He made double bogey from an aggressive play behind a pine tree on the 15th. He nervously chose putter from a collection area on the par-5 16th that turned a simple chance at birdie into a par.
Nothing could top the 17th hole, the most exciting on the Stadium Course. When his chip shot stopped just inside 30 feet from the hole, and bogey looked certain, Kaymer figured he still had one more hole. He couldn't see the line in the approaching darkness, though he remembered it from practice rounds.
When it dropped, he walked to the side and slammed his clenched fist in celebration, rare emotion for the German.
"Making a putt like this is more than big," he said. "I think I will realize it the next few days."
Kaymer finished at 13-under 275 and joined an elite group by winning the biggest event on golf's strongest tour. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott are the only other players to win a major, a World Golf Championship and The Players Championship.
For Spieth, it was his second big tournament in the final group. Tied for the lead through seven holes, he dropped shots to Kaymer on each of the next four holes — two bogeys by Spieth, two birdies by Kaymer.
Kaymer had just over 3 feet left for par on the 18th, and it made him think of his winning putt to beat Steve Stricker and ensure that Europe kept the Ryder Cup at Medinah two years ago. The celebration was different. This was for him, and a long journey back from when he won the 2010 PGA Championship, reached No. 1 in the world six months later, and then set out to improve his swing to avoid being a one-dimensional player.
"When I was standing over the putt, I just thought, 'It would be really nice to make that putt now, would be a very nice way to finish,'" he said.