As the sun burst through the Sherwood Forest like trees that envelop the hallowed fairways of Oak Hill CC in Saturday’s third round of the PGA Championship, this doyen of New York area courses, finally was playing the way it was supposed to. Fast and furious.
Softened by heavy rains in the first two days, the best players in the world were able to fire darts at both fairways and greens knowing that their ball would stop exactly where they aimed it. Oak Hill’s history is really second to none when it comes to hosting Major Championships, and is as demanding a test of finite golf as there is. You are simply not supposed to shoot a 6-under par, 64 and break the course record, which is precisely what Webb Simpson did on Friday.
He would have the course record for a grand total of 4 hours, as later in the day, Jason Dufner did one better and recorded a 63 which would vault the stoic young man from North East Ohio into the lead at 9-under par.
Saturday however, would prove to be a much different affair, as the course dried up and some chilling winds began confusing one player after another. Nothing would illustrate the way conditions had changed more than the travails of US Open Champion Justin Rose. In Friday’s second round, the brilliant Englishman played the front 9 in 29 strokes. On Saturday he would play those same 9 holes, 13 shots higher as he eliminated himself from contention.
As twilight fell, the list of contenders had been distinctly shortened. At 3-under par and 6 shots behind the leader, Jim Furyk, was a suddenly resurgent, Rory McIlroy, who carded a 3-under par 67. McIlroy’s round was capped off by birdies on both the 17th and 18th holes, which are really par 5’s disguised as par 4’s. It was at this very Championship last year that McIlroy triumphed by a record 8 shots. 2013 has not been a year that the phenomenally talented Irishman would care to remember, as he has struggled with his swing and game, but sometimes it just takes a spark to ignite such a fine engine.
Joining McIlroy at 3-under was 40 year old Englishman, Lee Westwood, who seems to always contend in the Majors, but who has yet to claim one for his own.
Two shots better at 5 under par were Masters Champion, Adam Scott, and ageless Steve Stricker. Scott left more shots on the course than any other player as he missed one putt after the other over the first three rounds. Few would argue that the 32 year old Australian has the best swing in golf, but his putting is a glaring Achilles.
No Swedish male player has ever won a Major Championship, but there were two among the top 5 of the leaderboard. Two time PGA Tour winner and up and coming star, Jonas Blixt, and 37 year old veteran, Henrik Stenson. Stenson has returned from golf’s never-never land in the last six months. Once ranked as high as #4 in the world, Stenson lost his game so badly, that when he went home and played in his Club Championship two years ago, he was unable to even win that event. The resurrected Stenson has finished 3rd and 2nd twice in his last 3 events which include his runner-up finish in the Open Championship three weeks ago. Blixt was at 6-under and Stenson one better at 7-under.
The final pairing was comprised of two of golf’s grinders. Two players who show almost no emotion when they play and who resolutely eke out every ounce of ability that they have in every round that they play. Dufner had followed his course record round on Friday with a solid 1-over par 71 that left him 1 behind Furyk who had recovered from two early bogies to post a 2-under par 68 and lead at 9-under for the tournament.
Dufner would take control of the tournament on the front 9 of Sunday’s final round by playing a flawless 3-under par 32. This would give him a 2 stroke lead over Furyk who maintained his position. It was two years ago in this same Championship, that Dufner had a 5 shot lead with four holes to play at the Atlanta Athletic Club before losing in a play-off to Keegan Bradley.
A lot has happened to the mop headed Dufner since then. In 2012 he broke through to win his first two PGA events and was one of the best US players in the Ryder Cup. In 2013, “Dufnering” became a household word. Dufnering is a video of the laid back Ohioan sitting on the floor with his back to the wall in a schoolroom appearing to be asleep. It became such a viral entity that Lindsay Vonn made her own edition.
One by one the players succumbed to the difficulties that are the back 9 on Sunday of a Major Championship at Oak Hill.
True to their styles, Furyk and Dufner made par after par until Dufner hit a sand wedge to within inches of the hole for a tap-in birdie on the 16th. Furyk would match the birdie with a clutch 14 foot putt of his own to keep the margin 2 shots with just two holes to play. Both would bogey the 17th and the 18th but both had been the best two players for the four days of this year’s final “Chance For Glory”.
After embracing his wife, Amanda, as he walked off the 18th green, his good friend, Keegan Bradley stood waiting to embrace him as well. Two years after the heartbreak that he endured so gracefully in Atlanta, it was fitting that the man responsible for his defeat there would be the first one to congratulate him here.
It is golf.