Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2013

Dufner Beats Furyk, Oak Hill, And Bad Memories

As the final round of the PGA Championship got underway on Sunday, golf fans knew that the consistent theme at the first three men’s majors this year was players coming from off the pace to win. A spot in the final pairing did not produce victory for Angel Cabrera or Brandt Snedeker at Augusta National in April, where Adam Scott claimed the first Masters title for an Australian golfer. Likewise Phil Mickelson and Hunter Mahan were the final two out at Merion in June, but it was Englishman Justin Rose who hoisted the U.S. Open trophy. Mahan was in the final pairing for the second straight major at the Open Championship last month, playing with 54-hole leader Lee Westwood. Mickelson was five shots back and barely part of the conversation when the final round began, but by day’s end the Claret Jug was his.

So it was tempting to bet against Jim Furyk and Jason Dufner, the final group to tee off on Sunday at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, New York. Furyk was the leader through three rounds at 9-under par, one ahead of his playing partner. Perhaps Henrik Stenson or Jonas Blixt, one of the Swedish pair playing just ahead would rally for victory. Or maybe Scott would claim bookend majors or Steve Stricker at age 46 would become the oldest player to win his first major championship.

But as the shadows lengthened on Sunday afternoon at the old Donald Ross layout, all of the pursuers had fallen back. Unlike its three predecessors, this season’s final major would be won by a player in the last pairing. Over the PGA Championship’s final holes Dufner and Furyk battled each other and their own demons.

Two years ago Dufner stood on the 15th tee of the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. He held a five stroke lead with just four holes to play, one hand firmly on the Wanamaker Trophy. His tee shot at the par-3 found the pond to the right of the green, leading to the first of three consecutive bogeys. Coupled with a pair of late birdies from Keegan Bradley, Dufner’s stumbling finish led to a playoff which Bradley won.

Despite being a straight hitter with plenty of length, the 36-year old Dufner’s career has been that of a successful journeyman. He turned pro in 2000 and bounced back and forth between the PGA Tour and its developmental counterpart for the next eight years. Secure with his Tour card for the past five years, he had a couple of top-10 finishes in addition to his major near-miss in 2011, and broke through with a pair of victories in 2012. He moved as high as 8th in the Official World Golf Rankings that year, but has since fallen back to 21st. Still while he has achieved financial success the question remained, if Dufner were ever again in contention at a major would he be able to shake off thoughts of the one he let get away?

He answered that question Sunday afternoon, with sixteen holes of flawless golf. Back-to-back birdies on the 4th and 5th holes moved him ahead of Furyk, who responded with a birdie of his own at the 6th to forge a tie. That lasted only until the 8th hole, where Dufner lofted a sand wedge from the middle of the fairway to the hole, 116 yards away. His ball landed two yards past the cup and spun back to within inches. When Furyk made bogey at the 9th Dufner’s lead was two.

That two-shot margin was never seriously threatened as the final pair made their way along the back nine. Time after time Dufner’s drives found the fairway and his irons found the green. If his putting was a bit suspect, with several reasonable birdie opportunities turning into routine pars, he was consistently in better position off the tee, and then closer to the hole on the green, than Furyk.

Finally the pair came to the par-3 15th hole. Both had made five consecutive pars on the back nine, and Dufner remained two shots clear as he stood on the tee of a hole that looked eerily like the 15th at Atlanta Athletic Club. But if the par-3 with a pond hard by the right side of the green was a visual reminder of his major collapse, it was also 60 yards shorter than its southern counterpart. Instead of a hybrid Dufner had a 6-iron in his hand, and his shot landed safely on the left side of the green, rolling just off the putting surface onto the fringe. From there he used a putting stroke with a 3-wood to bump the ball through the fringe and across the green, where it stopped three feet past the hole. When his putt found the bottom of the cup for par, Jason Dufner had left the nightmare of 2011 behind.

One hole later, after a 328 yard drive down the middle of the par-4 16th, Dufner lofted yet another sand wedge to kick-in distance for a certain birdie. While Furyk gamely made a fifteen footer to match his fellow competitor, the lead remained two with just two holes to play; forcing Furyk to press the issue. More often than not, trying to do that at a major venue leads to grief and that was the case for Furyk on Sunday. His approach shot from well back at the 17th was pulled left into the thick rough beside the green, and his first chip landed short of the putting surface. While he came close to holing out his next shot, the end result was a costly bogey. Still a glimmer of hope remained when Dufner pulled a short par putt wide of the hole, thus failing to capitalize on Furyk’s error.

That glimmer remained when Dufner drove into the deep grass on the 18th, but Furyk’s drive also strayed from the fairway into a less severe cut of rough. From there he tried to force an iron through the thick grass, with the predictable result of the ball darting left and well short of the green into a miserable lie. For Furyk the glimmer went out, and the laconic Jason Dufner, whose on-course demeanor makes the soft-spoken Furyk look excitable, was a major champion.

It would be unfair to the 16-time PGA Tour winner and 2003 U.S. Open champion to say that Furyk lost this major. Dufner was a deserving winner who put on a ball-striking clinic for most of the round, remaining bogey free through sixteen pressure-packed holes. When he finally stumbled at the 17th and 18th it was only after Furyk had already gotten into worse trouble. But there is no escaping the fact that Sunday marked the fifth time in the last seventeen months that Furyk has held or shared the 54-hole lead at a golf tournament only to see someone else claim the trophy. With today’s disappointment and last year’s late collapse at the U.S. Open, two of those five have been at major championships. It’s now approaching three years since his last PGA Tour victory at the 2010 Tour Championship. The man with the looping swing that they sure don’t teach at any golf school remains the ultimate grinder. But every lost third round lead just adds to the questions, and at age 43 one can’t help but wonder how many more chances Jim Furyk is going to have.

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Responses

  1. wonderful piece

    • Thanks so much!
      M-


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