PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Jason Dufner is a funny man, or so those close to him say. Jim Furyk can own a room, at least that’s what he claims. On Sunday, professional golf’s favorite flat-liners will find out if karma has a sense of humor.
The duo will set out for the final lap at Oak Hill as they always do – stone-faced, stoic, steely-eyed – looking to pen a cosmic punch line out of the depths of major misfortune.
For Furyk, it was the golf gods – or maybe it was the USGA’s clever executive director Mike Davis – who punked him when he stepped to the 16th tee at the Olympic Club at last year’s U.S. Open. Tied for the lead, Furyk became flummoxed by a tee that was some 100 yards forward and made a bogey he would never recover from.
The man who made “Dufnering” a social media sensation, and Retief Goosen look like he’s suffering from hyper-tension, started the final turn at the 2011 PGA Championship tied for the lead. Dufner waggled his way to a four-stroke advantage with four to play at Atlanta Athletic Club only to drop his tee shot in the water at the 15th and eventually lose a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
Still too soon?
But now the stoic tandem will set out together on Sunday separated by a stroke and staked atop the PGA Championship leaderboard, kindred cool heads who may well ignite the gallery with their play. But just don’t expect anything by way of histrionics.
That’s not their style.
“People tell me, ‘Smile, you look mean.’ But that’s just not my demeanor,” said Furyk, who opened with two early bogeys on Saturday but rallied for a 68 and a one-stroke advantage over Dufner.
They will tell you they feel the pressure, and the elation, but fist pumps and high-fives are not in their repertoire.
“It was enjoyable at certain points in the round, not enjoyable at others,” said Dufner, whose 1-over 71 left him alone in second place at 8 under.Birdies at Nos. 7 and 10 qualify as the latter, a double bogey at the fifth the former. But such was a reset day at Oak Hill that finally felt like a major championship.
Following two rounds of record scoring, the track meet turned into a Turn 3 pileup early and often for the front-runners. Matt Kuchar made double bogey at the par-3 third; Justin Rose started his day bogey (No. 2), double bogey (No. 3), bogey (No. 4), double bogey (No. 5); and after an early birdie, Adam Scott bogeyed Nos. 2 and 3.
And they say Oak Hill’s closing stretch leaves a mark.
By the fourth hole, Dufner was three clear and doing his Ben Hogan thing. At the fifth, however, the idiosyncratic American found Allen’s Creek with his drive, missed the green with his third shot and joined the fading pack with a double-bogey 6.
All total, just two players from the final 10 groups, Furyk and Henrik Stenson (69) managed to break par, and Sunday promises to be more of the same at Chalk Hill thanks to a rapidly drying golf course and freshening winds.
With the tougher conditions came the normal cast of major contenders. Steve Stricker (70), Scott (72), Rory McIlroy (67) and Lee Westwood (68) are all within six strokes of the lead – a margin that Dufner proved on Saturday could vanish in a New York minute.
“It’s difficult on a course like this to maintain your momentum all the way around,” said Stricker, who is tied with Scott at 5 under par and looking to become the first part-time player to win a major in the modern era.
McIlroy’s has been the most dramatic turnaround this week, if not this season. Through nine holes on Friday the Ulsterman was grinding to make the cut, but he’s played his last 27 holes in 6 under par and was starting to look the part of the world’s third-ranked player when he moved into a tie for seventh.
The same could not be said of the world Nos. 1 and 2.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be around for the final turn, but you may want to tune in early to catch them. Woods signed for a 73 and has still never broken par in seven major championship trips around Oak Hill. He’s tied for 48th at 4 over par and the formality of Sunday’s final round away from dropping his major record to 0-for-18 since 2008.
Still, Woods managed better than Lefty, who reverted to his Phranken-wood, which doubles as his driver, in an aggressive attempt to get back in the game at Oak Hill, but he spent most of the day playing from the hay. He will tee off in Sunday’s first group at 10 over par and in need of a few days of RR.
“I’ve been swinging well this year and hitting shots easy, but these last two weeks after taking a week off after the British it just hasn’t quite clicked,” Mickelson told Golf Channel. “I’m going to take a week off and start fresh.”
Not having Woods and Mickelson in the Sunday conversation is about the only thing that hasn’t gone to script this week at Oak Hill, which showed a surprising amount of fight following Friday’s deluge.
It remains to be seen if Furyk and Dufner have a similar amount of gumption given the duo’s history of major misery.
“I know I’m going to go into the media room and someone is going to ask me, ‘You’re 43, how many more opportunities do you think you’re going to have?’” Furyk smiled . . . really, he smiled. “I’m going to look at this as an opportunity.”
Or maybe a punch line: a 43-year-old grizzled veteran and a Twitter-happy curiosity walk to the first tee on Sunday at Oak Hill . . .