PITTSFORD. N.Y. – Jim Furyk isn’t exactly a dance-in-the-end-zone type, so when he went out of his way to say he was getting “really comfortable” with his driver while working on his short game Wednesday afternoon at Oak Hill, somebody should have been paying closer attention.
Easy to overlook, hardly dynamic, a fixture in golf’s top tier for the better part of 15 years. Furyk may not be the player he once was, but anyone who builds a hall-of-fame career while basking in the woodwork – a guy who still ranks among the straightest drivers in the game – isn’t likely to disappear at the 95th PGA Championship.
If one thing became clear during Thursday’s opening round, it’s that nobody will claim a Wanamaker Trophy from the rough. Oak Hill’s high grass isn’t the thickest stuff these guys have seen, but it’s tangled and somewhat spotty. On a course with numerous elevated greens, where calculating and executing approach shots is made much harder by the constant terrain changes, distance control can be achieved only from the fairway.
Do you believe in horses for courses? How about menus for venues? “Kiawah wasn’t wide open, but it definitely had more [room to miss] and there was a much greater benefit to being long,” Furyk said, referring to last year’s PGA host. “Bethpage is like that at the U.S. Open. There is going to be a give-and-take on every course. This is not short by any means, but I can see where the longer players have to hit a lot more irons off the tee.”
Translation: Furyk is in the game. His 5-under 65 start only drives home the point. In a league where the value of hitting fairways has steadily depreciated over the years, his 16 PGA Tour victories make him the rarest of birds: an ultra-successful control player who has survived equipment technology more than he has benefited from it.
By far and away, pun intended, he is the most successful short hitter of his era. Furyk has ranked outside the top 150 in driving distance every season since 2003, the year he picked up his lone major title (U.S. Open). You have to go back to 1998 to find him in the top 120. In this case, payback = position. Since emerging as one of America’s best young players in 1996, Furyk has never finished worse than 36th in driving accuracy.
In 10 of those 17 seasons, he landed in the top 10. Furyk isn’t quite Fred Funk, but from 2001 through 2007, he hit far more greens in regulation than any player of his kind. Thursday at Oak Hill, he hit his driver seven times when others were using theirs once or twice. The 30 yards he gives up on every par 4 at some ballparks is of no consequence here.
“I’m happy I played a good round,” Furyk assessed. “Trust me – I’ll be in a good mood the rest of the day. but I’m wise enough and been here enough to know that it’s only Thursday. You don’t win the golf tournament on Thursday.”
In a harsh twist to a career that had long defined him as one of the game’s best finishers, Furyk didn’t win them on Sunday last year, either. His late collapse at Olympic wasn’t quite as unsightly as Adam Scott’s a month later, but it was hard to see a decorated veteran look so helpless down the stretch.
Seven weeks after the U.S. Open falter, it happened again at Firestone. Furyk’s double bogey at the 18th handed a WGC victory to Keegan Bradley, who did charge with a spectacular 64, but it was Furyk’s trophy to lose, and lose it he did. Competitive scar tissue? It’s still hard to tell. Furyk hasn’t really contended at a premium-field event since.
At age 43, maybe he has another major title in him. Few major sites will offer Furyk a better chance to finish the job than this one. I’ve known the guy for years – since we collaborated on a lengthy Q&A for Golf Digest after his U.S. Open triumph in ’03. We’re talking about a guy who flies in coach class on his own dime to watch his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get man without an ounce of pretentiousness in his bloodstream.
Furyk is always so serious, so businesslike, which is why I asked him if he’d dress up in a clown costume for a photo shoot that would accompany a feature I wrote on him in 2009.
Much to my surprise, he said yes. The big red nose, shabby tuxedo, floppy shoes – it was 90 degrees that afternoon and the photographer must have taken 300 pictures. You thought you knew Jim Furyk? Ha ha. The joke’s on you.