PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Waggle, waggle, waggle, waggle, waggle, waggle, waggle.
Always seven to nine, except when the pressure is on. Like on Atlanta Athletic Club’s 15th hole during the final round of the 2011 PGA Championship, when he twitched a dozen times before dumping his tee shot and title chances into the murky abyss.
Like any artist, however compulsive, Jason Dufner is a creature of habit – seven to eight waggles then go. So when the idiosyncratic American stepped to Oak Hill’s daunting 15th hole – an eerily similar facsimile of AAC’s 15th complete with water looming right and nothing good left – the waggle watch was on.
At six Dufner pulled the trigger, launching his tee shot high into the crisp New York sky and onto terra firma, some 20 feet left of the hole and safely within two-putt range.
We’ll let the armchair sports psychologists mull the “deeper meanings.' In practical terms, which is where Dufner resides, the read was clear – everyone’s favorite flat-liner had matured into a major champion.
It wouldn’t be official for three more holes, after perennial contender Jim Furyk made a mess of the 17th and 18th holes, but as Dufner walked to the 15th green it was clear that the man who doesn’t outwardly appear to have a pulse played like it when it counted.
Don’t get it twisted – Dufner gets nervous.
“Yeah, at his wedding,” smiled caddie Kevin Baile.
For Baile and Dufner his Oak Hill breakthrough completed a circle that began in 1998 at the U.S. Amateur played on the Donald Ross gem.
Baile, a friend from Auburn, Ala., caddied for Dufner at that year’s Amateur. Dufner lost in the second round but began a relationship that winded its way back to upstate New York via the Web.com Tour, Atlanta Athletic Club and all parts in between.
“First loop with him was right here,” Baile said. “It feels pretty special. Karma, hard work, whatever.'
What it wasn’t was luck, an element that seemed to conspire against him at the ’11 PGA when he squandered a four-stroke lead with four holes to play and lost a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
This win was workman-like, a ball-striking display that began on the fourth hole when he striped his approach to 6 feet (birdie), at No. 5 when another brilliant iron shot rolled to 2 feet (birdie), at 8 when he rifled his second shot to 6 feet (birdie). What else would one expect from the man who flirted with major golf’s magic number (62) on Friday?
By the turn, Dufner had turned a one-stroke deficit into a two-stroke advantage over Furyk, who spent most of a clear, cool day playing catch-up. By the time Dufner stepped to the 15th tee all but Furyk had faded into the countryside.
Little did Dufner know he was six waggles and a smooth tee shot away from his maiden major.
“For me to be competitive on this type of golf course, I felt like I had to have a great week ball striking and I was able to do that,” said Dufner, who closed with a 68 for a 10-under 270 total and two-stroke victory over Furyk. “When I hit fairways I hit a ton of greens and that was the difference for me.”
There were plenty of candidates waiting to play the role of Bradley on Sunday.
Henrik Stenson – perhaps the hottest player in golf at the moment following top-three finishes in his last four global starts (T-3 Scottish Open, second Open Championship, T-2 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, third PGA) – eagled the fourth hole and birdied the 13th to move into a tie with Furyk two strokes adrift of Dufner. But the Swede played the rest of the way in 2 over par and finished three back.
Adam Scott, who after a lifetime of major indifference has become a Grand Slam fixture, managed to move within three strokes of the lead with a birdie at the 12th but also failed to gain ground the rest of the way. Or maybe Dufner just wasn’t giving any, who is to say?
One by one they all faded at Choke Hill until only Dufner and Furyk remained.
The gritty American charged in a 12-footer at the 16th but Dufner answered with another laser approach to a foot to hold serve. Pressing, Furyk pulled his approach to the penultimate hole left into the hay and needed two from there to reach the green.
The final hole was a formality.
“I sat here and told you that I was going to have a good time today,” said Furyk, who began the day with a one-shot advantage but closed with 71. “I was going to have fun. I have no regrets.”
For those looking to keep the Wanamaker Trophy half full, Sunday’s 70 tied Woods’ best trip around the upstate gem in eight major championship laps. Unfortunately it did little to help his title chances or his demeanor.
“I put four good rounds together last week – unfortunately it wasn’t this week,” said Woods, who in his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors has now gone 18 Grand Slam stops without winning one. “I didn’t seem to hit it as good and didn’t make many putts until the last few holes today. (I) certainly didn’t hit the ball good enough to be in it.”
Anecdotally, as proof things aren’t getting any easier for Woods in the majors, only Ben Hogan won five majors after turning 38. Woods will be 38 when he motors down Magnolia Lane in some eight months.
But that type of time constraint no longer seems to concern the other half of the world ranking marquee. Although Mickelson matched his worst round in a major on Saturday (78) and finished tied for 72nd out of a 75-player field, it wasn’t enough to spoil his post-Open Championship honeymoon.
“I want to forget these last couple of weeks. I’ll look at some film from the events I played well and just try to do the same thing I did there,” Mickelson said.
As Dufner made his way to the 18th green it was clear this one was going in the highlight reel for future reference. This wasn’t a work of art, as if the man who gave life to Dufnering was capable of a Mona Lisa, although his idol Hogan would have appreciated the ball-striking effort.
This didn’t have the sentimental symmetry of Scott’s victory at the Masters, or Justin Rose’s emotional Merion masterpiece, or even Mickelson’s walk-off brilliance at Muirfield. But don’t let the context cloud the accomplishment.
With his failure to convert that four-stroke lead at Atlanta Athletic Club hanging in the air, Dufner proved he was more than just a professional anomaly and social-media sensation.
“If anyone could come back from that it’s him,” said Bradley, who was halfway to the airport when he returned to Oak Hill to celebrate Dufner’s victory. “I’m sure he wasn’t even thinking about it out there. He just striped it all day. People think he’s all quiet, but he’s probably the loudest guy out here.”
He certainly made some noise on Sunday, one waggle at a time.