DUBLIN, Ohio – Jason Dufner built a five-shot lead through 36 holes and lost it five holes into his third round.
He turned in one of the highest Saturday rounds anyone has ever posted on the PGA Tour and still gone on to win.
And he rallied back from three down in the final round and waited out two separate weather delays to finally take the Memorial Tournament.
Dufner birdied the 17th hole and jarred a 33-foot putt for par on the final green at Muirfield Village on Sunday to win by three over Anirban Lahiri and his playing partner and friend Rickie Fowler.
“A 35-foot or so putt to go in to win is always nice,” Dufner said, seated next to tournament host Jack Nicklaus in his post-round news conference.
Inclement weather halted play twice Sunday, the second time when Dufner and Fowler had just teed off on the 18th hole, with the former ahead by two. For an hour and 17 minutes, Dufner waited to play his second shot from the thick rough off a downslope immediately in front of a fairway bunker. A swift hack through the wet grass managed to push the ball 75 yards forward, leaving Dufner 119 from the pin – and still in the rough.
After finding the middle of the green with his third, the 2013 PGA Champion rolled in his longest-made putt of the week and pumped his fist in what counts for him as a wild celebration given his typically calm demeanor.
“I didn’t want to celebrate too much because Rickie is my guy,” Dufner said, “and I didn’t want to rub it in too much. But he’s a pretty good sport about it, so I had a little fist pump there.”
Not yet finished but nonetheless unable to win the tournament and thoroughly unbothered by the fist pump, Fowler immediately went over to Dufner and extended his hand for a high-five.
“It was fun,” said Fowler, who finished tied for second with Lahiri after he failed to save par from the greenside rough at 18. “Just being able to push each other, to feed off each other, as well. I want to beat him just as bad as he wants to beat me. But to see him make that putt on the last was cool. … He earned it.”
Even though he settled for his 10th career runner-up, Fowler can partially take credit for the victory.
It was Fowler who “opened the doors” to Dufner and adopted him as a pseudo-roommate at his house in Florida this past winter. And it was playing and practicing with Fowler and Justin Thomas at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter that reignited in Dufner – who earlier this week called golf his job more than his passion – the kind of enjoyment that can escape him.
“There’s been times where I’ve fallen in and out of love with golf, to be honest with you,” he admitted. “It was good to be around those guys. They’re excited. They’re passionate. They’re working hard at it. They want to play good. They’re hungry. They want to win tournaments. They want to win majors. So for me to be around them I think helped me kind of get to this point.”
Asked why all those rounds at The Bear’s Club didn’t earn him a Spring Break invite from Thomas and Fowler, Dufner was quick to clarify that he’s always invited; he just always declines, opting instead to play Hilton Head the week after the Masters.
It would be somewhat odd to see a half-naked Dufner jumping off bridges and docks with his younger friends on Tour. It’s not exactly the vibe he gives off. Dufnering, after all, was basically just sitting.
To that point, Bubba Watson joked Sunday that when he watches Dufner, “it’s like his heart is not even beating.”
For a guy in Dufner who rarely shows emotion and usually answers questions in a monotone, Fowler believes his friend is sometimes a bit misunderstood.
“He’s one of a kind,” he said earlier in the week. “He’s one of the best guys I know out here. I know he would do anything for me. … Because he’s fairly quiet on the course, you don’t get to really see who he is as a person. He’s one of the funniest guys out here, too. But fan-wise, you wouldn’t really see that. The way he carries himself is pretty chill and mellow.”
This is only Dufner’s second PGA Tour win since he put on a ball-striking clinic at Oak Hill nearly four years ago to win the PGA. Thereafter he spent two inconsistent seasons finishing 88th and 90th in the FedExCup rankings. He broke through at the CareerBuilder in January of last year for his first post-major win, but he hasn’t represented the United States in a team event since the 2013 Presidents Cup played here at Muirfield Village. The win Sunday now has him sixth on the U.S list for Liberty National.
Dufner arrived in Ohio having missed only two cuts, but he hadn’t finished any better than T-11 in an individual stroke play event. Sunday night, he cited two unlikely shots at the 18th hole – his long par putt to win and his eagle holeout on Friday – as what propelled him to victory.
“Those are the types of things that can be the difference out here,” he said. “People kind of miss that. Everybody is playing pretty good in the top 10. It’s just a couple things that separate what I did today and the guys that finished second, third and fourth.”
Reflecting on what it meant to be sitting next Nicklaus having won on Jack’s course, Dufner made a thoughtful comparison.
“To always have my name attached with this event and Mr. Nicklaus, that’s the thing that makes me proud the most, I think,” he said. “I think just being part of history in golf is amazing to me. That’s why the Masters is my favorite tournament, because everybody that’s played golf at a high level has played that golf course, right? Is an amazing piece of history to be part of.
“So I’ll have a close place in my heart for this event, being a champion now. It will be very special for me to look back and know that I’m part of an event that Mr. Nicklaus puts on here on the PGA Tour.”
The Masters comment prompted Nicklaus to chime in.
“I think he probably likes this one better than Augusta right now,” he said.
“It’s paying a little bit better,” Dufner answered.