PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Jason Dufner doesn’t have the same set of skills as Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, though his career has shared the same path — from a memorable collapse at a major championship to redemption in pretty short order.
And in this sport, redemption doesn’t always come easily. Just ask Dustin Johnson or Thomas Bjorn. There’s an even longer list of players who gave away majors in the final hour and never so much as earned another shot, such as Ed Sneed or Mike Reid.
There was reason to believe Dufner might be part of the latter group.
Go back just two years to Atlanta Athletic Club to find Dufner standing on the 15th tee with the PGA Championship in his hands. He was four shots clear of Anders Hansen and five ahead of Keegan Bradley, who had just made a triple bogey on the par-3 15th.
What followed was painful to watch.
Dufner hit into the water and made bogey on the 15th. He hit into a bunker right of the 16th and made bogey. He hit the middle of the 17th green and still made bogey with a three-putt. Bradley answered with back-to-back birdies to catch Dufner, and then beat him in a playoff.
“Maybe looking back 10, 15 years from now, I’ll feel disappointment that I let this one get away if I never get another chance,” Dufner said that day.
He was certain there would be more opportunities.
But then, everyone feels that way.
McIlroy had a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2010 and shot 80 to tie the record for the worst score by a 54-hole leader. He vowed to learn from his mistakes, and it was the shortest lesson in major championship history. He won the very next major by setting the U.S. Open record of 268 at Congressional for an eight-shot win. That wasn’t a huge surprise. McIlroy is a special player.
More agonizing was watching Scott make bogey on the last four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, turning a four-shot lead with four holes to play into another British Open title for Ernie Els. Scott promised he would do better the next time. He truly believed there would be a next time, and he waited only two more majors to win the Masters.
Dufner didn’t have that pedigree.
When he threw away his shot at the PGA Championship, he had never won on the PGA Tour and never cracked the top 30 on the money list. At age 34, it was only his second year playing all four majors. Would he ever get another chance like that?
Yes. And when he least expected it.
That experience in Atlanta served Dufner well in the short term. He won twice on the PGA Tour the next year. He made the Ryder Cup team and went 3-1. And his popularity as the guy with no pulse took off when he was caught by a camera slumping against the wall, zoned out, while sitting next to elementary school children learning about focus.
On the golf course, however, his game was ordinary. He was an afterthought at most tournaments. His only top 10s were in the U.S. Open and Bridgestone Invitational, and he didn’t have a chance to win either one.
Without warning, his opportunity arrived at Oak Hill when he produced the 26th round of 63 in a major to take the 36-hole lead, and at least got into the last group. Dufner executed his game so beautifully on Sunday that he made the last two hours about as exciting as he looks.
But it was the blueprint for winning this major. With a two-shot lead over Jim Furyk going to the back nine, he matched scores with Furyk on every hole the rest of the way — even bogeys on the last two holes — for a 68 to win by two.
Bjorn appeared to have the 2003 British Open wrapped up until it took him three shots to get out of a pot bunker next to the 16th green and he finished one behind Ben Curtis. Bjorn didn’t get another look at a major until the same course — Royal St. George’s — eight years later. He finished fourth. Johnson already has let three chances get away in the majors, the most memorable his 82 in the final round at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open. He also had trouble recognizing a bunker on the 18th hole in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits that cost him a spot in a playoff, and he was closing in on a claret jug a year later until his attempt to lay up with a 2-iron went out-of-bounds.
Johnson is the type who will be there again.
Dufner could not afford to waste another opportunity, especially not one that came along this quickly.
The guy who doesn’t show any emotion also has thick skin. He has been bantering with Bradley on Twitter the last two years, and Dufner has taken his share of the needle. That’s what made him appreciate his win at Oak Hill all the more.
“He always jabbed at me a little bit about having one of these in his house,” Dufner said, sitting next to the Wanamaker Trophy. “And now I’ve got one, too. It’s pretty neat to come back and win a PGA, to be honest with you.”