ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Jason Dufner has a deep appreciation for golf history. Photographs of Ben Hogan decorate his house, and when he broke the competitive record at Oak Hill with his 63 Friday he humbly described it as a “tip of the hat” to “Mr. Hogan,” who first set the record in 1942. He loves the Oak Hill course and its rich history so much that he and his wife, Amanda, collected acorns to take back to Alabama and plant on the 50-acre tract where they’re building a home.
Last evening, Jason and Amanda had another piece of Oak Hill history with them on the plane home to Alabama: the Wanamaker Trophy, bestowed upon the winner of the PGA Championship. In a true Hoganesque ball-striking clinic, the 36-year old Dufner played nearly flawless golf in shooting a 2-under par 68 that closed the door on his playing partner, Jim Furyk, who had started the day with a one-stroke lead. Dufner finished at 10-under par for the tournament, two strokes ahead of Furyk. Furyk played steadily but, in a final round that had the feel of match play competition, couldn’t keep pace with Dufner’s succession of mammoth drives that split the majestic tree-lined fairways and set up laser-like wedge shots that spun to within two feet of the hole several times.
Like Phil Mickelson’s stunning win at the British Open in Muirfield after letting the U.S. Open slip from his grasp at Merion, yesterday represented redemption for Dufner, who two years ago had a solid lead in the PGA Championship with four holes to play but lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley. Fittingly, as Dufner walked off the 18th green with his first major championship, Bradley embraced his good friend. “He just said ‘I’m proud of you’,” said Dufner, noting that Bradley sometimes jabbed him about giving him the trophy. “And now I’ve got one too. It’s pretty neat to come back and win a PGA to be honest with you.”
Oak Hill is a course that places a premium on ball-striking, and yesterday Dufner continued to excel in hitting fairways and greens, avoiding the thick, punishing rough that can force players to lay up rather than go for the green. After taking 33 putts on Saturday to shoot a 71, eight strokes higher than his 63 Friday that tied for the lowest round in a major, many questioned whether Dufner’s shaky putting stroke would hold up under pressure on Sunday. As it turned out, putting was not so critical when Dufner’s precise wedge shots left him with several tap-in birdies. “I hit a lot of shots in there early in the round which made it easy for me, not too much pressure on the putter today,” said Dufner.
Dufner rarely displays emotion, but admitted that he was not immune to the pressures of major championship golf coming down the stretch. “I come across as a pretty cool customer I guess, but there are definitely some nerves out there, especially when you’re trying to win a major championship.” The laid-back Alabaman, who gave rise to the “Dufnering” craze and is known for his passion for SEC football, doubted that the status of major champion would change him as a person. “Yeah, it’s definitely going to change my life, but I’m determined that it’s not going to change me. I’ve got a great circle around me from a management team to my caddie to my wife to my coach that I’m looking for them to keep me in check to make sure it doesn’t change me.”
As for Furyk, who shot a 1-over par 71 with bogeys on the final two holes, this marked the second major in two years where he led after 54 holes but did not come away with a trophy. He was the co-leader (with Graeme McDowell) going into Sunday at the U.S. Open last year at the Olympic Club, and faltered to a 74 to finish fourth. At Olympic, Furyk was visibly distraught and edgy after his round. A different Furyk emerged in interviews yesterday; the 43-year old veteran seemed at peace with his efforts on the course. “I sat here and told you that I was going to have a good time today,” he said. “I was going to have fun. I have no regrets. I played my heart out. I played a very, very solid tournament.” He remarked that he enjoyed watching the crowd and “had an absolute blast.”
Sunday at Oak Hill turned into a two-man contest; no one else in the field was able to mount a credible challenge to the leaders. Henrik Stenson, who started the day two strokes behind Furyk, rattled off three birdies in the first six holes but faded to a 70. His 7-under par score for the tournament was good for third place, completing a very solid year of performances in majors. His fellow Swede, Jonas Blixt, shot a 68 to take fourth place at 6-under par. Adam Scott, who was tied for second place after the second round but slipped to a 72 Saturday, couldn’t make a run yesterday and closed with an even par 70 and a tie for fifth place with Scott Piercy, who had the low round of the day with a 65.
Golf continues to be a game that takes delight in confounding our predictions. Going into Oak Hill, the lead story line was an epic match-up between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the top players in the world who are having great years and were coming off impressive wins – Woods with his lopsided win at the Bridgestone Invitational and Mickelson at the British Open. But Woods and Mickelson left their games in Akron and Muirfield, and were non-factors at Oak Hill. Instead, two players who have struggled with their games this year and were winless on the Tour ended up sharing the limelight Sunday because their patience, steadiness, and consistent ball-striking epitomized what Oak Hill is all about. No doubt, Mr. Hogan would have been proud of his protégé.
Jack Ross is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly and was on-site at Oak Hill.
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