Jason Dufner beat Ernie Els on the second playoff hole with a birdie on No. 18 to finally capture that elusive first win at the Zurich Classic. Dufner was previously 0-for-163 on the PGA Tour and perhaps best known for his “waggles” in his pre-shot routine, along with squandering a five-shot lead with four to play at the 2011 PGA Championship and eventually losing to Keegan Bradley in a three-hole playoff.
When I saw his name climb up the leaderboard on Friday at TPC Louisiana, I was probably thinking the same thing as you: Oh man, Dufner with another 36-hole lead — can he see this one through?! This was the 6th of his career and third of the season (held at least a share of the 36-hole lead at the Transitions Championship and the Masters, where he eventually placed T10 and T24, respectively).
It took two extra holes, but obviously the answer turned out to be “yes.” Which is what he’ll be saying next Sunday in Auburn, Alabama, when he exchanges wedding vows with his fiancee Amanda Boyd. So this win is also an early wedding present for the couple.
“This helps with paying for the wedding, obviously,” said Dufner, referring to the $1,152,000.00 winning paycheck, in his post-round conference. “They’re a little bit more expensive than I thought or had imagined but, you know, it’s just a great way to start our week leading up to the wedding next week and bit of a gift for her and a bit of a gift for me.”
Where will the newlyweds venture for their honeymoon? Well, TPC Sawgrass, naturally.
“The honeymoon is going to be at Players Championship,” deadpanned the 35-year-old Auburn grad. “You ever been there? They got an island green. Pretty cool event.”
A few of his tour friends stuck around to support Dufner in the playoff. I’m going to assume he doesn’t read WUP, but they’re both playing the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, so they weren’t going to be able to make the wedding, but they’re planning to try to surprise him by flying down after they finish up — albeit late or just in time for the reception. “The fun part,” said Amanda during the playoff. Fingers crossed.
It was quite the thrilling duel coming down the stretch. Els, who has struggled this year, started the day at 14-under, three shots behind Dufner. He made them up quickly with a blazing front nine and took the lead when he rolled in an eight-footer for eagle on the par-5 No. 7. Els and Dufner stayed locked at 19-under for the last eight holes in regulation, which was pretty nerve-wracking just to watch.
(Not going to lie — I was apprehensive to follow Ernie after what happened in Tampa! I showed up and he missed the short putt on 16 for birdie and then bogeyed the next two holes to miss the four-man playoff at the Transitions Championship. Obviously, my presence had nothing to do with it, but it’s been an ongoing joke with his agent and golfers are irrationally superstitious.)
Just when it looked like Dufner was going to, well, pull a Dufner on No. 16, after knocking his tee shot in the hazard, he came through in the clutch. He drained a 43-footer to save par. Interesting enough, he had the same putt last year for birdie, so he knew the read and actually felt comfortable with it.
“I was in tears when he made that putt,” said Amanda behind 18 green during the first playoff hole. “I don’t know if it was happiness or relief.”
She added: “I thought he hit it in the water on that (second) shot, and I heard a really loud cheer for Ernie on the green ahead of him and I thought it was for birdie, so I thought Jason was going to make bogey or double. I had all that going through my head. Then when he made the 43-footer, just tears came to my eyes because I knew he was still in there and could pull it out.”
It was hard to tell if you saw her on the telecast, but she was definitely very nervous. So were his fellow tour buddies who were watching.
“Jason always tells me don’t be nervous because I’m not,” said Amanda.
Well, in this case, he was. It’s impossible not to be.
“There’s a lot of nerves out there,” said Dufner, candidly. “I know it doesn’t look that way with me, but it’s pretty stressful when you’re trying to win or trying to shoot a low score and, you know, obviously I haven’t had a great history in playoffs last year and, you know, kind of goes through your mind, ‘I’m in another playoff, am I going to be able to get this done?”
Meanwhile, just as Els was setting up to his 18-footer to save par after chunking his chip from the front of the green, a huge roar came from the 16th green. If he heard it — which I feel like he did — he didn’t let it bother him. He coaxed it up as it rolled toward the hole and the ball had just enough to find the bottom of the cup to save par.
(I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I actually caught myself, saying, “Yes!” and making a tiny fist-pump. I don’t remember the last time — if ever — I’ve done that. We’re programmed to be so stoic out there. After all, no cheering in the press room. Hey, it happens, but I thought it was funny that I immediately looked around in horror to see if anyone saw. Well, there was only one other media member inside the ropes, so I was safe. Phew!)
“The Big Easy in the Big Easy!” fans yelled as he walked up the 18th hole in regulation.
Els has struggled with his putting the last two years. As I mentioned earlier, he missed a few short ones in Tampa, including on the 72nd hole, which cost him not only a spot in the playoff but also potentially an invitation to the Masters. Good news is he didn’t have a single three-putt this week, but unfortunately, he missed a six-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole to win.
The crowd, which was largely cheering for Els, gasped.
“I didn’t hit a great putt on that first playoff hole, but it was a better putt than I hit in Tampa,” he said in his post-loss presser. “It wasn’t as good as I wanted to (hit it). So, disappointing with that but all in all, I had a good week. I really felt shooting those four rounds in the 60s the way I did, was really nice, but I came up short.”
Though Els missed that putt, he didn’t piss away the tournament. He made a lot of putts for clutch par saves on the back nine to even get himself in the position to win.
“I’ll go back to the drawing board but I think a lot, said Els when asked what he’d take away from the round. “I had a chance to win the tournament with a 6-footer and missed it but I made quite a few putts on the back nine to keep myself in it or pars and so forth.
“I hit the ball pretty well today, no bogeys on the final round, so there’s a lot of positives. The only thing is the win.”
Obviously, Els said it was a letdown, but he certainly wasn’t hot like he was in Tampa.
“It’s a disappointment, especially when you have a putt to win the tournament,” he said. “To play 72 holes, four days of golf and have a putt to win, that’s a negative and positive. It’s one of those things.”
Yeah, it was still heartbreaking and tough to swallow, but nothing a few Heinekens can’t cure.
Dufner stood over his kick-in putt for the win longer than usual. What was going through his head?
“‘Don’t miss it because this is to win,'” he said, laughing. “I hate to admit that but that will run through your head for a second and you want to make sure that thought is gone and onto stroking a one-footer like you do on Tuesday afternoon at your home course with one hand is what I was thinking about.”
Dufner also admitted to feeling relieved to secure his first win. After all, everyone was talking and asking about it.
“There’s been good bit of pressure,” he said. “Just people talking about, you know, ‘Why aren’t you winning, why can’t you close the deal?’ You know, from friends, family, media, even people in my inner circle.
“Not in a negative way but when you’re leading tournaments going into weekends and you’re finishing 24th there’s going to be some questions. So for me to get that kind of off my back, maybe this will jump-start me and, you know, get me to start believing that I can compete out here on a week-to-week basis and win some of these things.”
Dufner is certainly not the first guy to feel that pressure. Just ask Justin Rose, who used to be the poster child for best-player-without-a-PGA-Tour win, but in the last 23 months, he has four victories, including a World Golf Championship.
You know, it’s a process and different for every player. Congrats to Dufner. Well deserved. Hopefully it’ll be Ernie’s time again soon.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)