Dufner outplays field to win first major championship - The Buffalo News

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Dufner outplays field to win first major championship

PITTSFORD — Jason Dufner started playing golf at 15.

Years, not months.

He had to walk-on to the Auburn University team. In the year 2000, when he turned professional, he played on something called the Golden Bear Tour.

He had no status on the Web.com Tour in 2001 and had to Monday qualify his way into events. As recently as 2008, he was participating in PGA Tour Qualifying School, trying to have a full-time job for the next year.

Everything about his appearance – the floppy head of hair, a physique that carries a few extra pounds and a dip of chewing tobacco tucked into his bottom lip – screams out journeyman.

His expressionless demeanor resembles one of a person trapped in an eternal line at the DMV.

But all of those things simply hide one thing: Dufner is a world-class golfer. Well, they did hide it, but no more.

Not after Sunday, when the 36-year-old native of Cleveland planted a kiss on the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.

“My name will always be on this trophy, and nobody can take that away from me,” he said. “So it’s a really great accomplishment for me and I’m really excited about it.”

Lest one believes Dufner is too robotic for their liking, he or she only needed to see his reaction on the 18th green. After tapping in the winning putt, Dufner greeted his wife, Amanda, with a hug ... and a victory squeeze.

It was a glimpse – however fleeting – of his human side.

“I come across as a pretty cool customer, I guess,” he said. “But there are definitely some nerves out there, especially when you’re trying to win a major championship.”

Dufner finished with a 2-under round of 68 Sunday on the East Course, giving him a 10-under total of 270 for the championship. For a player with a keen interest in the history of the game, there’s this: his total is four shots better than the 6-under 274 Jack Nicklaus shot in the 1980 PGA Championship, which had been the low score in five majors at Oak Hill.

Back in November, Dufner tweeted out a list of his five favorite courses. Oak Hill was on it, along with Augusta, Pebble Beach, Kingston Heath and Royal Liverpool.

“I put that list out and I meant what I said,” Dufner said a short time after his victory Sunday. “It’s a great golf course and it’s a ball-striker’s golf course. I think you really have to hit a lot of different shots out here, shape the ball differently. It really tests you off the tee and it really tests you into the greens.”

Dufner passed all those tests Sunday. He drove the ball straight – a must with the treacherous Oak Hill rough that gobbled up wayward shots – and his iron play was mostly immaculate.

“For whatever reason today, I felt really comfortable, really calm and felt like I could do it,” he said. “Felt like I could give myself a chance and pull this out.”

That he was able to was also redemption for Dufner, who lost the 2011 PGA Championship in a playoff to good friend Keegan Bradley after blowing a four-shot lead with four holes to play. As he made his way off the 18th green, Dufner was greeted by Bradley with a celebratory “bro-hug.”

“You always carry those scars with you,” Dufner said. “He always jabbed at me a little bit about having one of these in his house, and thanks for giving it to him and all that stuff. And now I’ve got one, too. It’s pretty neat to come back and win a PGA, to be honest with you.”

Dufner started the day in the final pairing one stroke back of his playing partner, Jim Furyk.

Dufner erased the deficit with a birdie on the par-5 fourth hole, going through the green in two before putting a delicate chip shot on the green within 4-feet and converting the downhill putt.

On the next hole, he took dead aim at the flag stick with his approach shot, sticking it to a foot for another birdie and the lead.

“I went right at it and stuffed it,” Dufner said after the round.

Furyk drew even with a birdie on the par-3 sixth hole, but Dufner again pulled ahead at the par-4 eighth, when he dropped another lofted iron a foot from the hole for a gimme birdie.

“I have a lot of respect for the way Jason played and how well he struck the ball,” said Furyk, who finished two shots back at 8-under 272. “He seemed to be in the middle of most fairways. He seemed to be on the greens with a chance for birdie on almost all of them. Heck, if he got hot with the putter today, who knows what he would have shot?”

The day started with several challengers positioned to make a run, but none really did.

World No. 3 Rory McIlroy birdied the par-3 third hole to reach 4-under, but then blew a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 4 and threw away any chance of competing with a triple bogey at No. 5.

McIlroy’s playing partner, Lee Westwood, made a double bogey at the third hole and collapsed to a final-round 76, prolonging his continued quest for his first career major.

Playing in the penultimate group Sunday, Swedes Henrik Stenson and Jonas Blixt were unable to deliver the first major title by a male player for their home country. Stenson finished alone in third place at 7-under, his second straight top-three finish in a major after being runner-up in the Open Championship last month.

Stenson made an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole, then pulled to within two shots at 9-under with a birdie on the par-5 13th, but was unable to pull any closer.

His chances were erased with a bogey on the 310-yard par-4 No. 14, when his tee shot landed in a divot.

The pressure of contending in a major showed right away for Blixt, who bogeyed the first two holes. He responded with four birdies, but faded down the stretch by bogeying three of the final four holes to finish at 6-under 274 and in fourth place.

Australian Adam Scott, who was seeking his second major of the season after winning the Masters in April, made bogey on the first hole and shot an even-par 70 to finish in a tie for fifth.

“It was tough because the guys who didn’t play very well out there struggled to score,” Scott said. “I think it was a true reflection of how you played.”

In the end, nobody was better than Dufner, who put his exclamation point on the championship with another superb iron shot on the par-4 16th. When his iron shot from the fairway spun back to 18 inches, it was clear only a van de Veldeian collapse would prevent him from hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.

Dufner did make bogey on the brutally difficult 17th and 18th holes, but so did Furyk.

“I wish I could have put a little heat on him and made him work those last two holes a little bit harder,” Furyk said, “but he hit the ball in play very solidly and made enough putts to separate himself from the field. I have a lot of respect for him and the way he played today. ... I look at it as I got beat by somebody that played better today.”

At 36, Dufner may be a late bloomer, but Scott thinks his best could be yet to come.

“He looks like he’s really got his game to where he’s going to be a threat for as long as he wants now,” he said.

If Dufner does go on to bigger things, he’ll look back at his week at Oak Hill as the catalyst.

And he won’t have to go far.

Before leaving the course, he and Amanda made sure to take home some acorns.

They’ll plant them at their home in Auburn, Ala., with the hope that one day, they’ll have some towering oak trees in their back yard, standing tall as a reminder of Sunday.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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