PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Did you see it?
It happened right there, on the 18th green, with a chance to rewrite history.
It happened when Jason Dufner, the PGA Tour’s most placid player, finally surrendered to the moment.
He was leading the 95th PGA Championship, but more important he was 12 feet away from immortality, from being the first player to shoot 62 in a major championship.
Not Tiger. Not Jack. Not Norman. Not Player. Not Faldo. Certainly not Johnny.
It would be Duf, all alone.
And he left the birdie putt short.
“It’s tough when you’re chasing history,” he would say later, after his 7-under 63 Friday left him two shots clear heading into the weekend at Oak Hill. “You will be the first one to do something. I don’t think I’ve been the first to do anything in my life.”
Twenty-six times now a player has shot 63, and it takes a special confluence of events. The setup must be conducive to low scores. (Several hours earlier, Webb Simpson shot 64.) The conditions must be perfect, and we certainly had that, too: no wind and a rain-softened track. And the player must be dialed in with his irons (15 greens hit) and making putts (26).
The last to accomplish the feat was Steve Stricker, who shot 63 in the opening round of the 2011 PGA. That was the major that Dufner should have won, the major that he had a five-shot lead with three holes to play, the major that he kicked away down the stretch and lost in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
Ironically, Stricker played with Dufner on Friday and seemed to enjoy the show. And why not? Two years ago, when Stricker was making his own run at history, he was so engrossed in how he was playing that he didn’t even realize his score. He missed a 10-footer on the last that would have given him the first 62 in major history.
“There’s something about breaking that magical 63 barrier that is tough to do,” Stricker said.
“It’s just hard to shoot 62,” Dufner said. “I’m sure there’s a mental hurdle for some guys to break that barrier.”
Mental hurdle? Dufner doesn’t look like he even has any. If he did, he would probably just stare at them, unimpressed, and then walk around.
Apparently, though, he has a calm exterior and a conga party inside.
“He was aware (down the stretch), for sure,” Stricker said. “He’s very calm. I’m sure he was churning on the inside.”
After missing a 10-footer on 15, Dufner came back with a 6-foot birdie on the 16th to move to 7 under for the day and sound the 62 alarms.
So overwhelmed, Dufner pured a hybrid from the middle of 17 fairway and stuffed a thick pinch of tobacco into his lower lip. The move delighted his legion of followers, each donning red “Duf’s Dips” shirts. They probably would have Dufnered too, if not for the muddy walkways or the fear of being trampled by the huge galleries.
When his 20-foot birdie putt on the hardest hole on the course burned the edge, he emoted in the most Dufner way possible – by slightly tilting back his head. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Photographers couldn’t miss that Dufnerian outburst.
As he stood on 18 tee, a plane towing a Texas Roadhouse banner crawled across the blue sky. Apropos for Dufner, it read, “Y’all Look Hungry.” Nine waggles later, he launched a drive that came to rest just a few paces off the center line. He la-di-da’d his way down the fairway, oblivious to the “63!” cheers.
There were 11 waggles for his approach, a 6-iron from 203 yards, and the ball was dead on-line, dropping near its pitch mark, 12 feet short of the cup.
As Dufner marched up toward the green, the fans in the 18th grandstand rose to a standing ovation, and he responded with a gentle tip of the cap, like the new cult figure does in those cheesy Comcast commercials.
Twelve feet from major history, he made one practice stroke and took three peeks at the cup. The putt was uphill, into the grain, and with a minefield of spikemarks dotting his path …
And he left the putt short. Not just short. A foot short. So short, in fact, that for the first time in hours, he mustered a smirk. Did you see it?
“You couldn’t have a better putt for a 62, and I left it short in the jar,” said Dufner, who settled for the new course record.
“It was tough to see him leave that last putt short,” Stricker said, shaking his head.
“I was kind of pulling for him, to be honest with you,” Jim Furyk said. “That’s a pretty good feat.”
The 62 Watch over, at least temporarily, the focus shifts to the tournament that Dufner now leads at 9-under 131. It’s an even better position than he enjoyed two years ago outside Atlanta, where he held a share of the lead after both the second and third rounds of the PGA, had a comfortable advantage on the back nine, and still couldn’t take home the Wanamaker.
Visible or not, nerves showed up that Sunday afternoon, just like they did Friday at Oak Hill. They are cracks in the laid-back exterior, major pressure exposing all. Did you see them?
After his second round, while signing his card in the clubhouse, Dufner turned to Stricker and said, “This is a lot for a Friday.”
Rest assured, this weekend will once again strain the Tour’s most placid player – he’ll just try to hide it.