The Secret Life of Jason Dufner, PGA Champion

Seventh Hole

“I see you. How could I miss you with that shirt? At least tell me you got it for free.”
— Jason Dufner, in the media room, to a reporter in the back trying to get his attention

By now, it was starting to feel like a two-horse race. Henrik Stenson had just dropped a shot on this very hole, and everyone else who mattered was in some stage of collapse. That left Dufner, who had never won a major, and Jim Furyk, whose lone win at the U.S. Open a decade ago had been eclipsed by his ensuing failures.

Earlier, there had been hints that the day would be filled with unpredictable surges from off the leaderboard. Graeme McDowell had done some scoring early on, posting eight birdies and showing that Rochester’s Oak Hill course was receptive — as it had been on Thursday and Friday — and not stingy and mean like Saturday. Scott Piercy and Jason Day started scorching hot, going from even-par to 6-under and threatening to post early clubhouse numbers that would truly scare the leaders. Now they had faded — too few holes — and the nerves were starting to get to the real contenders. Lee Westwood was up to his old Sunday-at-the-majors choking act, en route to a 76. Rory McIlroy, everyone’s sexy pick to steal the PGA from his morning position at 3-under, triple-bogeyed no. 5 and evaporated from the collective unconscious. Adam Scott was only even on the round, and that wouldn’t cut the mustard, while Jonas Blixt, whoever he was, had started bogey-bogey and taken himself out of the conversation.

So here we were, on a lovely, sunny day in upstate New York. Dufner and Furyk, at 10-under, scrambling on no. 7 and producing two tough pars. A day that had started wide-open had become exclusive, and the words “match play” were bandied about among the media.


Eighth Hole, Ninth Hole

“He’s very funny. He likes to pick on people … all the time.”
— Amanda Dufner, Jason’s wife, trying to explain after the round that her husband isn’t as boring as he looks on the course

This is where the balance of power shifted. Furyk won the 2003 U.S. Open, but you’d barely know it from the narratives that emerged when he took a 54-hole lead at 9-under.

“It’s been so damn negative all week,” he said of the media on Saturday. For good reasons, maybe; his record in majors and Ryder Cups since the U.S. Open win has been fairly awful, complete with a few outright chokes. Also, he’s a bit tired of hearing about his age.

“I know I’m going to go to the media room and I know someone is going to mention that I’m 43 and that I’m old and how many more chances am I going to have?” he said.

But despite his promises to treat Sunday as an opportunity and that he’s grown from experiences like the 2012 snafu at the U.S. Open, there weren’t many who believed he’d actually win. But he had scrambled his way to a birdie and six pars before hitting a beautiful iron to within 10 feet on no. 8. Then Dufner, whose irons had been unfairly precise all day, did him one better and launched his iron shot straight at the flag, where the ball ended within tap-in distance. Furyk missed his putt, and for the first time on Sunday, Dufner had the lead. Then came no. 9, where Furyk wasted one of the best drives with a wonky iron, and Dufner scrambled for par while Furyk took bogey. Now the lead was two shots, and the narrative had emerged: Could Dufner handle the back-nine pressure with a putter that had looked awfully timid all week? Could Furyk, a cautious player, possibly summon enough aggression to challenge him?


10th Hole

“I took something that was trying to hurt me a little, and I ran with it, so it ended up helping me. Fans knew me.”
— Dufner, on the “Dufnering” phenomenon that began with a photo of Dufner sitting in an elementary school classroom, looking miserable, and ended with fellow pros and everyone else on the Internet mimicking the pose (the results ranged from hilarious to fairly cruel) until it became a certified meme.

After another fantastic iron, Dufner’s putt to the hole was tentative and fearful. He had no more than a foot coming back, and he tapped it gingerly, with an implied prayer for good results. It was like watching an awkward teenager ask a girl out for the first time. The ball drifted right, but the putt was short enough that it caught the right lip and went down. The gallery gasped. Dufner strode off the green in his turquoise shirt, and, oddly, clapped in anger. For someone who spends much of his time on the course with a blank expression, looking as though he’s trying to stuff his head back into his neck, chin-first, the display had a comic effect. It was anger in a vacuum, just like when he threw his club into a stream at the U.S. Open — emotion without precedent.

And a new narrative — would Dufner’s irons be good enough to save him from having to make the tricky 4- to 5-foot par putts that could ruin his chances for a first career major?


11th Hole, 12th Hole

“You always carry those scars a little. Keegan always jabbed at me a little bit about having one of these [Wanamaker Trophies] in his house, and thanks for giving it to him and all that stuff.”
— Dufner, on his loss to Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship, after bogeying the 15th, 16th, and 17th to blow a 4-shot lead with four holes to play.

So far, he was surviving his putter. Dufner laced his tee shot into the fairway on both holes and hit gorgeous approaches that left him makeable birdie putts. Both strokes looked feeble, but they left him tap-ins for pars. It felt a little too early to play not to lose, but Furyk missed his birdie putts, too, and with a two-shot lead at 11-under, Dufner’s results were increasingly acceptable. He knew, anyway, that his current score would almost certainly win the tournament. Still, he was stuck between two different players. Player one was a stud on the tee and the fairway with pinpoint control and no sign of nerves. Player two was a frightened amateur on the greens. There’s no happiness in the dichotomy, and after the par on 12, he flung his putter at his bag and stared dolefully off at the sky.


13th Hole, 14th Hole

“They’ll have to pay their own expenses.”
— Dufner, on whether a group of Canadian kids with “Duf’s Dips” written on their red shirts would be following him to other Tour stops

After his drive on the 598-yard par-5 13th, Dufner walked by four kids Dufnering along the ropes, urged on by an adult behind them. He either ignored it or didn’t notice. He stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco into his lower lip, and it was easy to imagine the rush of nicotine that gave him a moment of relief from the nerves. On either side of the gallery, fans shouted “War Eagle!” — Dufner is an Auburn alum — and “Duf Man!” The green at 13 is guarded by six bunkers, but Dufner’s third shot was high, straight, and dead accurate. Again, he missed the birdie, and again, he tapped in. Ahead, Stenson bogeyed the 14th to drop to 8-under. Now the two-man duel was on in earnest.

On 14, a day earlier, Dufner watched his playing partner Adam Scott drive the 323-yard par-4, drawing the ball between two bunkers and onto the green for an eagle putt. An impressive feat, heightened by Scott’s remote good looks. But Dufner laid up, as he did today, and here the formula remained the same; iron, birdie putt in close, short putt for par. It was almost like a challenge to Furyk — can you make me vary my routine? But Furyk, who backs off his putts over and over, possibly reducing his chances each time, missed again. Somewhere ahead, Scott bogeyed a hole and lost his chance to win two majors in a year.


15th Hole

“I did not particularly care for the fan selection of that pin today.”
— Dufner

The par-3 15th is short, with water on the right, and the PGA of America decided this year to let fans vote on the pin location for the final round. If they’d been offered the choice, they probably would have placed the hole an inch from the water, but instead they did the next best thing, choosing a far right location that brought the water into play for the bold and aggressive.

Both Dufner and Furyk chose to avoid the risk and play it safe. Increasingly, this began to seem like the wrong move for Furyk, especially when Dufner used a fairway metal from the fringe to give himself yet another easy par.

Oak Hill, as you might imagine, has many oaks, but it also has maples, spruces, pines, planes, ginkgos, and, always near water, a few weeping willows. Dufner stood in the shade of one of these and watched Furyk save par with a 7-foot putt. On the way to the next green, he tossed the ball to a kid in the gallery who was seized by a look of total joy as his friends watched him jealously.


16th Hole

“It’s hard to talk yourself into the fact that it’s just a golf tournament.”
— Jim Furyk

Furyk wagged his club back and forth on the tee. He wore a red, white, and blue bracelet his daughter made for him. His drive was straight, and he waited at his ball while Dufner used the players’ only portable toilet off the fairway — a detail mentioned only because you have to wonder what he was thinking in the one moment all day when he was well and truly alone. Furyk struck one of his best irons of the day, flying the ball over the front right bunker. He walked ahead and turned to watch Dufner’s shot. It sailed in, spun back, and ended less than a foot from the hole. For just a moment, Furyk’s head sagged in disbelief. He was at last playing a good final round, and the competition was doing this?

He and his caddie Mike Cowan (a.k.a. “Fluff”) brooded over the putt. Fluff has the face of an 80-year-old man and the legs of a 25-year-old mountain climber, and together they figured it out. But after he sank the putt, Furyk had to watch Dufner’s tap-in for 12-under. The two-shot lead remained.


17th Hole

“So at least that one [sapling] will take root. I will have some trees out there, and it will be a neat experience — first major championship at Oak Hill and hopefully have some of their oak trees out there on the property.”
— Dufner, after explaining that he and his wife collected a sapling and acorns from Oak Hill to plant on their new 50-acre property

A mess for Furyk, who hit his iron in the rough, hit his wedge into more rough, and salvaged a bogey. For the first time on the back nine, though, Dufner left himself the dreaded 5-foot par putt. It was a chance to effectively close out the tournament, and he missed. Furyk was breathing, if barely.


18th Hole

“My name will always be on this trophy, and nobody can take that away from me.”
— Dufner

Dufner’s drive was better on the last hole, but both players ended up in the right rough. It was up to Furyk to create a miracle, and a heroic attempt to launch a 5-iron up to the elevated green, where the fans in the stadium seating cheered him on, came up empty when the ball skidded to a stop in the thick rough short of the hole. Dufner’s approach came up short, too, but by then it had been decided. Furyk bogeyed, Dufner missed another short putt, tapped in from inches away (“the last putt was the perfect distance for me,” he said after), and won his first major.


“I don’t use external sources to motivate me.”
— Dufner, on whether the attention on Tiger and Phil drove him to succeed at Oak Hill

He barely pumped his fists when the putt went down. Walking to the clubhouse to sign his scorecard, he kissed his crying wife but barely broke character. When he held the trophy on the 18th green, he never smiled; he just looked shocked, or maybe numb. It was easy to think of him as the boring champion, because he gave you nothing except a bit of unexpected humor in the press conference. Like Walter Mitty from the famous short story by James Thurber, he is mostly overlooked and sometimes harried (the beauty of the “Dufnering” origin photo is that it caught Jason Dufner looking exactly like Jason Dufner), a man whose sources of satisfaction are hidden from public view. Of course he didn’t grin like a madman; of course he didn’t break down in tears. We wanted a catharsis, and we didn’t get one. But — and doesn’t this feel like a relief? — we don’t matter. The emotions were beyond our grasp, and now the secret life of Jason Dufner includes a major championship.

Filed Under: Golf

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere