With his unkempt hair, bent-brim ballcap and whatever, dude attitude, Jason Dufner looks like he ought to be one of the clowns screaming "Bababooey!" on tee shots. Instead, he's the guy making those shots, and now, he's a major winner.
At 36, Dufner isn't exactly a young gun. But the former Auburn walk-on has discovered his game in recent years, and now stands as one of the most reliable players in golf. His 2013 PGA Championship was an absolute clinic: he tied the all-time record for lowest score in a major on Friday with a 63 and clinched the victory with a near-perfect run of play throughout the weekend.
If his Sunday duel with Jim Furyk wasn't exactly one for the ages, that's not Dufner's fault; after taking the lead just before the turn on Sunday, Dufner never faltered enough to let Furyk back in the door, claiming the championship by two strokes and earning the first major win of his career.
The PGA Championship is the Ringo of golf's majors, lacking the gravitas of Augusta, the muscle of the U.S. Open, the historic spectacle of the British Open. The last time the PGA came through Oak Hill, in 2003, the winner was Shaun Micheel, a player who has never won another professional tournament. The PGA of America has resorted to painful slogans (the just-discontinued "Glory's Last Shot") and fan-service gimmicks (this year's contest to select the Sunday pin placement on No. 15) in an attempt to gin up interest.
But while the tournament may not entrance golf fans, it's still a major, which means it's got a hammerlock on the minds of the players. Every major carries a storyline of "who needs it most?", and both Furyk and Dufner bear recent scars from coming out on the wrong end of a battle for a major.
Two years ago almost to the day, Dufner held a five-stroke lead with four holes to play in the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. He bogeyed three of the final four holes and would lose to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. Last year, Furyk stood on the 16th tee on the final day of the U.S. Open holding a share of the lead and proceeded to butcher the hole and surrender a win to Webb Simpson. So, yes, you could say both of these guys were "due," though the golf gods tend to laugh at such talk. Major championships aren't gifts, they're conquests.
Furyk entered the day leading, a grim omen for 2013: none of the 54-hole leaders of this year's majors went on to win. Dufner sat a stroke back, "sat" being the operative word for the man whose very name is now synonymous in the golf world for casual, whatever happens, happens detachment.
On the outward half of the card, the games of Furyk and Dufner were mirror images of one another. Where Furyk visited every rough he could find, Dufner sighted his drives right down the center of the fairway like a fastball. Where Furyk saved himself with long putts, Dufner made highlight-reel putts unnecessary by darting approaches right at the cup. The turning point came on No. 9; with the two tied, Furyk bogeyed and Dufner birdied, spreading a two-stroke gap that would hold up for the rest of the afternoon.
"I hit some awkward shots on the front nine," Furyk said afterward. "I figured that out too late."
The brutal closing stretch of holes offered both players a chance to bury some old ghosts. Furyk, who famously missed clutch putts that could have won the Ryder Cup for the United States in 2012, drained two of the most coldblooded putts of his career on 15 and 16 to remain in contention.
Dufner, who saw his major dreams of two years ago drown in a pond just to the right of the par-3 15th green, stepped to the 15th at Oak Hill to see … a par-3 15th with water along the right side. This time around, though, he kept the ball dry and escaped with a par.
Both players began to rattle on 17, each bogeying the hole to keep Dufner's lead at two. Needing to make magic, Furyk threw a Hail Mary on 18, but came up short, leaving his approach stuck on the low edge of the 30-foot-high mound surrounding the 18th green. With the pressure off, Dufner simply played prevent-defense golf, and this time it worked, his bogey matching Furyk's. It may have been a dull finish – Dufner fired a final round 68 to Furyk's 71 – but the Wanamaker Trophy doesn't carry asterisks for less-than-dramatic wins.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Dufner said afterward, his face its typical mask of non-emotion. "To come back from a couple years ago in this championship when I lost to Keegan, this feels really, really good.”
Dufner's final score of -10 was the lowest in a major this year. Players who had complained of unfair setups at Augusta, Merion and Muirfield found themselves with a wealth of birdie opportunities on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, though, the course fought back, allowing only 11 rounds below par. The course claimed two serious challengers in Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose, leaving Dufner, Furyk, and the Swedish duo of Henrik Stenson and Jonas Blixt at the top of the leaderboard.
Sunday proved a bit more generous, with several players posting scores that were notable in themselves but too little, too late to make a run at Dufner. Scott Piercy (-5) and Jason Day (-3), in particular, shot up the leaderboard with strings of birdies. But Dufner was simply relentless, slouching toward glory with a barrage of flawless approaches that just ground down his opposition.
This wasn't a tournament for golf's marquee players. Adam Scott returned to his non-Augusta form, letting birdie opportunities slip through his fingers. Rory McIlroy's Sunday flirtation with the top of the leaderboard lasted about as long as a Caroline Wozniacki ace, and Tiger Woods (+4) and Phil Mickelson (+12) played so badly all week long that neither one of them deserves even their own full sentence.
No, this story belongs to Dufner.
Prior to this weekend, Dufner was best known as the unintentional creator of "Dufnering," a photo-meme inspired by a picture of Dufner looking bored beyond belief as he sat against the wall in an elementary school class. Chances are he’s not going to get any livelier now. But now he’s got a trophy big enough to lean against.
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