PITTSFORD, N.Y. — There was a lot of debate at the PGA Championship about whether it was better to sleep on a lead or come from behind. Jason Dufner did a little of each this week at Oak Hill in his deceptively dozy, heavy-lidded way. He was the chased, then the chaser and finally the champion. Have you ever seen a sleepier, more relaxed dude win a major championship?
Dufner, 36, looked like a surfer gone to seed with that slack belly, wild hair strawing out from under his cap and soul patch on his lip, which had a tendency to be filled with snuff. “For me, golf is a little more boring,” he says. But underneath the facade, what a come lately striver and what a loose, sweet swing. All he did at Oak Hill was decimate a timeless, classic course with a second-round 63 that tied the lowest round ever shot in a major and then seize the title away from the well-established Jim Furyk with a final round 68 in which he treated the greens like bull’s-eyes.
Dufner was the direct opposite in style to the 43-year-old Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who looked like a prim weekend gardener by comparison in his charcoal slacks, white-soled sneaker-spikes and baggy shirt. The final round was essentially match play between them, a pruner against a dipper, Dufner the challenger and Furyk the leader who started the day with a one-stroke margin and announced he preferred playing from in front.
Furyk claimed to like his position despite the fact he had dramatic collapses last year in the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup and the Bridgestone. “People always ask, ‘Would you rather be one ahead or one back?’ ” Furyk said Saturday night. “Well, I’d rather be one ahead. There’s going to be a winning score tomorrow, and whatever that score is, it means I don’t have to shoot as low as everyone else, if that makes sense. But overall, I’m comfortable with where I’m at.”
But perhaps Furyk should have put in a call to Jack Nicklaus, who came from behind to win eight of his 18 majors and who understood that protecting a lead in a Grand Slam event was a more difficult mental and emotional proposition than stalking it. “I’d rather be two strokes ahead going into the last day than two strokes behind, but having said that, it’s probably easier to win coming from behind,” Nicklaus once told Golf Digest. “There is no fear in chasing. There is fear in being chased.”
By no means did Furyk collapse or show fear in this PGA; his 1-over-par 71 was an essay in solid course management. But comfortable and solid weren’t good enough against a player with Dufner’s ability to make a steel golf club look as delicate as a piece of ribbon. When the reversal came on the golf course, as it almost inevitably does to leaders of majors, Furyk found himself unable to counter against a player with momentum and a cool temperament. Furyk maintained his one-stroke lead through exactly three holes. Then Dufner birdied three of the next five, cutting gorgeous irons at the flagsticks to near-gimme distances. When Furyk bogeyed the ninth from the greenside rough, Dufner was the leader by two at 11 under.
That margin didn’t change again. Even with a two-stroke lead, it was Dufner who put the pressure on everybody else, continuing that array of iron shots that seemed to draw toward the pins like homing beacons. “I wasn’t going to let up,” Dufner said. “I was going to keep trying to make birdies and keep trying to put pressure on the rest of the field. I think sometimes when you get careful, you can make mistakes.”
On the 439-yard 16th, Furyk tried to turn up the heat when he struck a pretty approach to 12 feet. But Dufner responded by splitting the arrow, his own approach flying directly over the pin and spinning back to within a foot. The tap-in birdie moved him to 12 under, still with a two-stroke lead, a cushion he would need when both bogeyed the final two holes. Only Dufner’s tendency to waver with his putter and turn the shortest putts into side-door adventures made the outcome at all doubtful.
“I just decided to be confident,” he said afterward. “. . . I wasn’t going to play soft or scared.”
If there was a moral to what Dufner did this week at Oak Hill, it’s that choking is not a destiny. It’s a temporary state. In 2011 at Atlanta Athletic Club, remember, Dufner had a five-shot lead with four holes to play — and lost it. He hit in the water on the 15th and made three bogeys, and Keegan Bradley came from behind to win in a playoff.
In the past two years now we’ve seen numerous examples of leaders who experienced so-called chokes — only for the victims to respond by winning majors. Rory McIlroy shot an 80 to blow the 2011 Masters — and came back to win the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship. Adam Scott lost the 2012 British Open after leading by four strokes with four to play — and came back to win the 2013 Masters. Phil Mickelson stabbed himself in the heart at the most recent U.S. Open — and came back to win the British Open. And now we have Dufner.
Obviously, all of these players decided that losing a lead was not a permanently engraved character flaw. They learned the important lesson, to “focus on remedies, not faults,” as Nicklaus once put it. Or as Dufner says, “I’ve had leads in majors and not pulled through. I always felt like that was going to make me a better player and more confident the next time that I had a chance.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.