PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Jim Furyk is reeling. You can read it on his face like a down-and-out poker player. He’s stressed out. Feeling the pressure.
Let’s just call it what it is. The man is nervous.
It’s a sensation he knows all too well. Furyk is leading the 95th PGA Championship, yes, but the gravity of the moment is starting to wash across his brow, his forever-frayed nerves stretching even further.
He lays up on the short par-4 14th hole at Oak Hill, where most players are cranking driver, and only makes par. He flirts with another par on 15, only to watch his ball wickedly carom off the edge of the hole. He misses again on 16, this time for birdie, an opportunity lost.
You can see his face becoming more clenched. You can sense his nerves becoming more frayed.
When he magically gets up and down for birdie on the 17th hole, hitting a hybrid from 244 yards to some 18 feet, then holing the putt, none of it subsides. He is lost in the moment, awash in the importance of it all.
“It’s a little easier to focus when you’re nervous,” he later says. “Relaxed doesn’t mean that I’m not nervous. I think it means that I’m comfortable with the position I’m in and I’m having fun with it.”
Furyk never looks like he’s having fun playing golf, perpetually wearing the blue-collar expression of his mill-worker grandparents. Now, though, in the heat of the moment, with thousands of eyeballs trained upon his every movement, his maneuvers almost look painstaking. When his ball falls into the cup on that 17th hole, he barely shows any emotion.
Maybe this is why he receives so little empathy from the masses for last year’s foibles. On four separate occasions, Furyk led a tournament through 54 holes. And on four separate occasions, he felt the heartache of losing on Sunday afternoon. That includes the U.S. Open, where he bogeyed two of the last three holes to finish in a share of fourth place. Throw in a 1-3 record at the Ryder Cup, and it was a year to forget.
But here’s the thing about such disappointment: You have to be really good to have a year as bad as Furyk had last year.
The U.S. Open winner from a decade ago, he didn’t look like he was having any fun in those situations, either, which also accounts for the lack of compassion toward his struggles. He’s a feel-good story who isn’t warm and fuzzy. He’s never the favorite, but isn’t an underdog. He’s making a comeback without ever having gone anywhere.
As he methodically walks to the 18th tee, all of it adds up to him hardly being the sentimental pick, let alone the sexy one. Nearby fans rain down echoes of “KUUUCH!” to his playing partner Matt Kuchar, seven shots off his pace. Furyk leads, but receives only a few polite cries of “Go Jim!”
Seconds later, he hears silence. Leading by one on the last hole of the third round, he pops up his tee shot, short and right. Never one to waste words, his caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan later explains, “Hit an awful shot.” Furyk concurs: “I hit a poor 3-wood, to say the least.”
He is forced to lay up in the fairway, then hits an approach that looks good, only to watch it spin back off the front of the green. Those witnessing the action can be excused for whispering about how Furyk is getting his major blunder out of the way one day early this time.
Only, he isn’t.
This time he steps up and rams the putt directly into the hole. The crowd booms, those whispering seconds earlier are now screaming in unison.
The tension melts from Furyk’s face. He offers a hefty fist pump and smiles, not for the first time in his career and not even for the first time all day. It just seems like it.
All of those nervous feelings come pouring out. He’s smiling. He’s happy. He actually looks like he’s having fun. Until minutes later, that is, when he’s reminded that once again, he finds himself with a 54-hole lead and those scenarios haven’t been kind to him in recent memory.
“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 says. “I’m kind of waiting for it. I’m going to have some fun with it. You know, I’m not in the grave yet. I’m going to have more opportunities ahead of me.”
Apparently one man’s déjà vu is another man’s opportunity.
“Tomorrow is an opportunity,” he continues. “That is exactly the way I’m viewing it. I’m going to have fun with it and I’m going to enjoy the opportunity.”
Remember this during the final round. Remember this when he’s reeling and stressed out and feeling the pressure and – let’s just call it what it is – nervous. Even with all of those sensations competing for attention, Furyk will still be having fun battling for another major title.