ROCHESTER, New York (Reuters) – American Jason Dufner erased memories of his heart-breaking late collapse two years ago when he clinched his first major title by two shots in the 95th PGA Championship on Sunday.
One stroke behind playing partner Jim Furyk overnight, the ultra-laidback Dufner produced some scintillating approach play on the way to a two-under-par 68 and a 10-under total of 268 on the challenging Oak Hill Country Club.
“It probably still hasn’t hit me yet,” Dufner said after being presented with the coveted Wanamaker Trophy which he hoisted high before kissing it. “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
Dufner, 36, seized control with three birdies on the front nine and shut the door on his rivals with a steely display of precise shot-making, backed up by safety-first golf over the difficult closing stretch.
A stunning approach to a foot at the par-four 16th earned him his fourth birdie of the day and he could afford the luxury of bogeys at 17 and 18, two of the toughest holes on the course, as he secured his third victory on the PGA Tour.
After putting out on the last green, Dufner retrieved his ball from the hole before partially raising both his arms in celebration with his eyes closed and a faint smile on his face.
He was warmly embraced by his wife Amanda, followed by his good friend Keegan Bradley, who won the 2011 PGA Championship after Dufner blew a five shot lead with four holes to play.
“To come back from a couple of years ago in this championship, when I lost to Keegan in the playoff, to win feels really, really good,” said Dufner, who paved the way for his victory with a record-tying 63 in Friday’s second round.
Only 23 other players have fired 63s in golf’s elite championships and Dufner joined a select group of just six who went on to win the tournament – emulating Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.
“The last two holes were a little unfortunate,” said Dufner, the 19th different winner in the last 21 majors.
“I wish I could’ve closed out with no bogeys but I am happy to get the job done. It’s a big step for my career.”
Former U.S. Open champion Furyk, bidding at the age of 43 to win his first major crown in a decade, signed off with a 71 to finish alone in second place after struggling off the tee.
“I have no regrets. I played my heart out. I played a very, very solid tournament,” said Furyk. “He hit three iron shots within a foot of the hole where he had tap-ins for birdie, and he played incredible. He played a great round of golf.”
Henrik Stenson, aiming to become the first Swedish man to land one of golf’s elite titles, closed with a 70 and a seven-under tally, one stroke better than compatriot Jonas Blixt (70).
Rory McIlroy, who had played his way back into contention with a 67 on Saturday, effectively sank his title defense when he hit his second shot at the par-four fifth into water en route to a triple-bogey before winding up at three under with a 70.
Tiger Woods, seeking to end a five-year title drought at the majors, ended a forgettable week with a 70 to finish halfway down the leaderboard at four-over 284.
The year’s final major shaped up as a two-horse race for much of a warm, sunny afternoon as Dufner and Furyk dueled for the lead.
Dufner drew level at the top when he sank a five-foot birdie putt at the par-five fourth, then briefly claimed the outright lead after hitting a brilliant approach that spun back to two feet at the tricky par-four fifth to set up a tap-in birdie.
However, Furyk immediately rejoined Dufner at the top when he drained a slick, 35-footer to birdie the sixth and both players parred the seventh, despite ending up in the left rough.
Dufner, who become something of a cult figure earlier this year because of the ‘Dufnering’ craze, then countered with another brilliant approach, this time a sand wedge to a foot at the par-four eighth, to reclaim the outright lead at 11 under.
While Furyk bogeyed the ninth after missing the green with his approach and hitting a poor chip to 15 feet, Dufner sank a clutch eight-footer to salvage par after ending up in rough off the tee and take a two-shot lead into the back nine.
Dufner missed a series of birdie putts from 10-foot range and just beyond early on the back nine as he continued to hit greens in regulation before he and Furyk each birdied the 16th.
As the shadows lengthened, Dufner maintained his two-shot cushion as he and Furyk both finished bogey-bogey.
Woods, a heavy favorite after a dominant win last week recovered from a shaky outward nine as he came home in three-under 32 but his overall total of four-over 284 left him well off the pace.
“I put four good rounds (together) last week, unfortunately it wasn’t this week,” said Woods.
“Didn’t seem to hit it as good and didn’t make many putts until the last few holes today. But I didn’t give myself many looks and certainly didn’t hit the ball good enough to be in it.”