PITTSFORD — While observing golf history Friday, I encountered a minor technical problem. When I typed the word “Dufner” on my Twitter feed, the auto correct on my iPhone kept changing it to “duffer.”
Really, duffer? I’ll have to take the device back to the dealer and set the record straight. Anyone can see that Jason Dufner is no duffer. He’s one of the best golfers in the world, a Ryder Cup veteran, a late bloomer who has finished in the top four in three of the last eight majors.
In fact, late in the afternoon of the second day of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill’s venerable East Course, it looked as though Duffer, er, Dufner was about to post the lowest round in major golf history.
Dufner “settled” for a 63, becoming the 24th man to shoot 63 in a major. That magical 62 remains elusive. Dufner did break the competitive course record of 64 on the East Course, which had been held by Ben Hogan (in 1942), Curtis Strange (in 1989) and — for about two hours — Webb Simpson.
A 62 would have been great. But breaking the course record was especially gratifying for Dufner, a Cleveland native who is an avid fan of golf history. The photo on his Twitter page shows Hogan finishing his perfect, elegant golf swing.
Superimposed in the middle is a photo of the plaque that lies in the 18th fairway at Merion, at the spot where Hogan hit his famous 1-iron that got him into a playoff at the 1950 U.S. Open.
“Obviously, I’ve been a great follower of Mr. Hogan and everything that he’s done,” said Dufner, who takes a two-shot lead into today’s third round. “To knock his course record off is kind of a tip of my cap to him, and it will definitely be something that I can always look back on when I’m finished playing.”
Dufner wants to look back on some major championship triumphs. At 36, he’s not regarded as one of the sport’s rising young stars. It took him awhile to find his stride. He was a walk-on at Auburn. He spent five years on the Nationwide Tour.
He finally broke through in 2009, winning more than $2 million and finishing 33rd on the money list. In 2010, he finished fifth in the PGA Championship. In 2011, he lost the PGA in a playoff with Keegan Bradley.
Last year, he won twice on tour and finished fourth on the money list.
Dufner, ranked 21st in the world, struggled early this season, largely because of his wayward putter. He failed to finish in the top 10 in his first 13 events. He tied for fourth in the U.S. Open, though, and had another tie for fourth at the Bridgestone a week before the PGA.
Oak Hill was supposed to reduce the entire field to duffers. In seven previous majors on the East Course, only 10 men had finished 72 holes under par. But the course was softened by rains the first two days, and the best players in the world treated the greens like dart boards.
Par came under a full assault. Simpson tied the course record with a 64 in the morning, despite a persistent rain. He was 7-under with three holes to play, but played his final three holes in 1-over. As the birdies flew around Oak Hill, you had the feeling that someone was bound to go even lower before the day was done.
Sure enough, Dufner played his afternoon front nine in 4-under 31. He birdied the 11th to go to 5-under. I ran out to follow him as he walked up the par-5 13th, which comes up to the clubhouse. He made a 10-foot birdie putt, moving to 6-under for the day and taking the overall tourney lead.
At the 16th, Dufner split the fairway with a driver, knocked a 140-yard pitching wedge to six feet, and birdied to go to 7-under. A fan hollered “War Eagle,” in deference to Auburn. A group of young Canadians in red “Duf’s Dips” T-shirts yelled “Duffy” and “63!”
Dufner is renowned for his laid-back personality. He’s expressionless on the course. I never saw him smile. He has gained a cult following on Twitter for “Dufnering” — the term people use when they photograph someone in a goofy, seemingly disinterested pose.
It started when Bradley, who is Dufner’s buddy, tweeted a photo of Dufner looking spaced out while slouching in the midst of a bunch of children in a classroom appearance. Rory McIlroy poked fun at Dufner by tweeting back a picture of himself in a similary dorky pose.
Anyway, Dufner looks like he’d be unflappable in a monsoon. But that doesn’t mean he’s not churning inside.
“I’m probably like anybody else,” Dufner said, “but I can hide it a little bit better. Today was a little bit unusual, because of the buzz that was going on with the round I was producing. Usually, that buzz comes toward the end of a championship.”
Dufner knows history. He knew what was at stake. Steve Stricker, one of his playing partners, was well aware. Stricker, in a stroke of fate, had been the last player to shoot 63 in a major. He did it in the first round of the 2011 PGA Championship in Atlanta.
“I was kind of able to enjoy Duf’s more than mine,” Stricker said. “Yeah, he was aware of it for sure. He’s very calm. But I’m sure he was feeling it on the inside.”
Dufner was feeling it with his clubs, too. Dufner made some magnificent shots on the final two holes, a couple of monster par-4s. On the 509-yard 17th, he knocked his second shot about 15 feet below the hole with a rescue hybrid.
It left him in ideal position. Dufner said every indication told him the putt would move to the right in the last few feet. It didn’t. After watching it slide past on the left, Dufner looked incredulous and muttered, “Wow!” to himself.
On the 18th, a treacherous, uphill, 497-yard par-4, he hit another solid drive and put his approach about 12 feet away below the hole. The galleries that lined the 18th roared as Dufner walked up the steep hill to the green. They knew what was at stake. I have to admit, my heart was racing in anticipation as I hustled up the left rough to the elevated green.
There were only five birdies on 18 all day Friday. Dufner had a chance to make history, shooting 62 and separating himself from Johnny Miller and the other 22 men who have shot 63s in a major. But finally, after a near-perfect day, he finally looked like some duffer.
He left his birdie putt a foot short.
“The greens had gotten a little bit slower, obviously a little bit bumpier,” Dufner said. “I didn’t hit the best putt — probably the worst putt I hit of the day, which is a little disappointing. But all in all, it’s a 63, and my name on top of the leader board. So that’s a great position to be playing from.
“If I could do it over, I guess I would hit the putt harder.”