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.