A major learning experience
Posted August 11, 2013
Updated August 13, 2013
At the highest levels, success in athletics ultimately comes down to how you handle pressure. How you perform in the biggest moments, those that determine the outcome of games, of seasons, of championships. Sunday afternoon, on a bright, mid-summer afternoon at historic Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, Jason Dufner stared at a leader board with several worthy contenders and stared down his own history at the PGA Championship and grabbed his first major trophy.
He seemingly did it with a resting heart rate somewhere in the low 20s.
"I come across as a pretty cool customer, I guess. But, there are definitely some nerves out there, especially when you're trying to win a major championship."
Those nerves clearly were apparent two years ago, at the Atlanta Athletic Club, in the final round of the PGA Championship. Dufner stood on the 15th tee with a 5-stroke lead, but made three consecutive bogeys to fall into a tie and eventually lost a playoff to Keegan Bradley. Same thing happened to Adam Scott at the Open Championship last year, when he bogeyed the final four holes to lose by one shot to Ernie Els. And, it happened to Jim Furyk, Dufner's playing partner on Sunday, in the final round of the US Open a year ago.
It happened to Furyk again yesterday.
Golf is unlike every other sport in how its championships are decided. Forget the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup, it isn't even in the same stratosphere as the four majors in terms of importance. Oh, that's not to say that Brandt Snedeker or Bill Haas didn't have to deal with their own pressures in winning the last two Cup titles, it just means that there isn't a soul connected to the sport of golf who doesn't understand that legacies are built four weekends a year.
This year's champions will go down as Adam Scott (Masters), Justin Rose (U.S. Open), Phil Mickelson (Open Championship) and Dufner. Four players who conquered the field, the golf course and their own inner demons to claim career-altering titles. Those four men made history. Scott, Rose and Dufner each won their first major championship, Mickelson captured his fifth and cemented his legacy as one of the top ten players in history.
What happens over the next month is just about money.
In golf, players feel pressure for different reasons. For some, it's the pressure of making the cut and a paycheck to keep playing another week. For others, it's about winning a regular tour event which guarantees them playing privileges for two seasons. Every level up, the pressure grows.
Dufner was just a guy, part of the rank and file on tour until nearly catching lightning in the proverbial bottle two years ago in Atlanta. But the following year, he proved to be a player coming into his own. He won twice, placed second two other times and won more than $5 million worldwide. He was a member of the American Ryder Cup team, winning three of a possible four points in the hottest cauldron in golf. That the U.S. fell short against Europe again was hardly Dufner's fault.
This year, Dufner faced a different kind of pressure. Anyone can have a great year, and 2012 was just that for the former Auburn Tiger. But, could he do it again? Prior to this week, the answer was, well, we're not sure.
Other than a great final round at the U.S. Open that thrust him into pseudo contention and last week's fourth place finish 2103 had been largely a step back for Dufner.
Until this weekend.
With Friday's spectacular round of 63, tying the low score for a single round in a major championship, Dufner announced himself a contender. And, even though he didn't play nearly as well on Saturday, he still entered the final round with a great chance to claim his first major championship and when the bell rang at 2:55 pm ET Dufner came out fighting. Three birdies on the front nine put him in the lead and when his approach on 16 came to rest just inches from the hole the Wanamaker Trophy was just about ready for the engraver.
Dufner was bigger than the pressure of winning his first major while Furyk struggled with the weight of trying to win his second -- ten years after claiming the U.S. Open. Such is the power of the task. It creates tension and anxiety and fears that don't exist during the other 25-30 tournaments of the year and Dufner was up to the challenge. "You try and act like it's not a big deal, but it's a big deal," Dufner said afterward. "I know what to expect…and how I'm going to react to the pressure."
His reaction was a lot better than everyone else's. It was also better than it was two years and a thousand miles ago.