AVONDALE, La. – Jason Dufner stood over the putt – not even 2 feet – and didn’t move. What was happening? He had missed other crucial putts in other tournaments, but never one this short. What was he thinking?
'I was thinking, ‘Just don't miss it. This is for the win,’' he said. 'I hate to admit it but those thoughts creep into your head. I just wanted to stroke that putt like I would with one hand on a Tuesday round at your home club.'
Instead, he rolled it in conventionally, and as the ball fell, so did his status as a winless PGA Tour player. Now he was Jason Dufner, 2012 Zurich Classic of New Orleans champion. Winner in a playoff over Ernie Els.
He raised his arms in what looked like more shrug than celebration. Dufner may appear to lack a pulse at times on the course, but he insists his heart races like anyone else’s.
'There's a lot of nerves out there,” he said. “I know it doesn't look that way with me, but it's stressful when you're trying to win.”
'I don't know how long he can keep it up, that wall, but he's doing a good job so far,' Els said, laughing. 'Kind of reminds me of myself back in the day.'
Dufner, 35, had taken at least a share of the lead into the weekend five previous times in his PGA Tour career, including twice already this season. Until Sunday, he had failed to seal the deal.
'There's been a good bit of pressure, people asking, 'Why haven't you been winning? Why can't you close the deal?'' Dufner said. 'Friends, family, media and even people in my inner circle were asking. To get that off my back, maybe that will jump-start me and get me thinking that I can compete out here and win some of these things.'
Shedding the label of best player on Tour without a victory, however, required overcoming his own nerves and a three-time major champion.
Dufner and Els finished tied at 19 under par after 72 holes at TPC Louisiana. Each could have won by birdieing the par-5 18th hole in regulation, but both settled for par. Dufner’s was especially disappointing, coming after he had made two birdies and an eagle on the hole in the first three rounds.
To get to the 72nd hole with a chance to win, however, Dufner first had to escape almost certain doom at the 16th. Tied with Els on the tee and with a 3-wood in hand at the short par-4, Dufner tugged his tee shot through the fairway and into a water hazard.
Caddie Kevin Baile let his man process what had happened and what he needed to do to get up and down for par.
'When you've got the fastest horse in the race, you don't mess with him at all,' Baile said. 'That was probably the only bad shot he hit all week.'
Looking at bogey or worse, Dufner had an 83-yard wedge shot which he played safe to 45 feet right of the hole. Then he snaked in the par save.
'It's unexpected, but that's what I tried to do,' Dufner said. 'I knew I had to do it. I had that putt last year for birdie, so I was comfortable with it.'
Dufner’s fiancée, Amanda Boyd, welled up with tears as the putt fell.
'I had just heard really loud cheers for Ernie on the hole ahead and thought it was for birdie,” she said. “Then with Jason looking like he was going to make bogey or double bogey, I had that all running through my head. When he made that putt, tears came to my eyes. It was so exciting.'
On the first playoff hole, No. 18, Dufner reached in two but three-putted. He thought the tournament had been lost as Els stood over a 5-footer for the win. But the South African missed.
'A good mentality to have is to think that somebody is going to make a putt like that. A lot of guys think that way,' he said. 'Obviously it didn't go in, so I felt like I had a second chance.'
Playing No. 18 again, Els was forced to lay up after driving into a fairway bunker. Dufner found the green in two for a second time, nearly in the identical spot as the first playoff hole. This time, his lag putt came to rest safely past the cup.
After Els missed a 15-footer, Dufner stood frozen over his tap-in, finally stroking it into the hole.
Els was disappointed not to win for the 19th time on the PGA Tour and punch a ticket back to the Masters, which he missed this year for the first time since 1993.
'Disappointing to lose but all in all, I had a good week,' he said. 'I really felt shooting those four rounds in the 60s the way I did, was really nice. Just came up short.'
Other than the putt he missed on the first playoff hole, Els could not blame his putter. He did not have a single three-putt green in four rounds.
'I didn't hit a great putt on that first playoff hole. It was a better putt than I hit in Tampa,' he said with a laugh, referring to a putt he missed on the final hole of the Transitions Championship that would have put him in a playoff. 'But it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be.'
Both players will skip Quail Hollow next week. Dufner will marry Boyd in Alabama. 'It's a great wedding present for both of us,' he said of his $1,152,000 winner’s check. 'It helps paying for the wedding, which is more expensive than I thought. It's a bit of a gift for her and a bit of a gift for me.'
The newlyweds, however, will not be able to get away until later in the summer. It's back on Tour in two weeks.
'The honeymoon's going to be at the Players Championship,” Dufner said. “Ever been there? It's nice.
“They have an island green.'